"one should be free to determine the course of one’s gendered life."
June 4, 2015 1:05 AM   Subscribe

Gender Trouble was written about 24 years ago, and at that time I did not think well enough about trans issues. Some trans people thought that in claiming that gender is performative that I was saying that it is all a fiction, and that a person’s felt sense of gender was therefore “unreal.” That was never my intention. I sought to expand our sense of what gender realities could be. But I think I needed to pay more attention to what people feel, how the primary experience of the body is registered, and the quite urgent and legitimate demand to have those aspects of sex recognized and supported.
Judith Butler talks to Cristan Williams about feminism, gender and the hostility of some within radical feminism towards trans people. Judith Butler is a prominent gender theorist & philosopher whose book Gender Trouble (1990) is arguably one of the foundation text of modern queer theory but which has sometimes been (ab)used to disappear trans experiences.
posted by MartinWisse (28 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
She's so so articulate, thoughtful, and gracious. Excellent post.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 1:20 AM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yes, I really enjoyed reading this. It is some of the most well-spoken and lucid examinations of gender identity and sex that I've read in quite a while. Thanks for posting!
posted by hippybear at 1:31 AM on June 4, 2015

The two big things I've noticed from reading TERF stuff are:

1. TERFs tend to deny that gender exists at all, or insist that it is an invention of patriarchy. The writings that rely on these ideas tend to read very much like a fish expounding at length on the absurdity of the idea that water exists.

2. TERFs tend to have neither any understanding of the lived experiences of trans people or even any interest in their experiences, and when they do read about them they tend to skim and lie about their contents. For example, I have seen, time after time, the insistence that transwomen just need to be okay with wearing dresses and adopting female-coded behaviors (which is a fascinating assertion when coupled with the above point about denying the existence of gender) and only extremely rarely seen any acknowledgment that gender dysphoria is real and painful.

It's a movement that makes a home for ignorance, sadism, and the rejection of empathy for anybody but cis women, and so it's no surprise that the people in that movement tend to be terrible human beings.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:49 AM on June 4, 2015 [17 favorites]

Friendly reminder that trans is an adjective and trans people are people, trans men are men, and trans women are women, not some weird third category (so not transpeople, transwoman, etc., much like it isn't gaymen or whitefolk or whatever).
posted by Dysk at 1:53 AM on June 4, 2015 [19 favorites]

Much good has come from her work. But as someone who publishes in philosophy of language and JL Austin, the claim that gender is a performative has never made any sense.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:06 AM on June 4, 2015

But as someone who publishes in philosophy of language and JL Austin, the claim that gender is a performative has never made any sense.

Maybe Butler wouldn't endorse this move, but what's wrong with saying that an assertion of gender is a performative? (Where assertions needn't be natural language sentences; other communicative endeavors qualify, such as displaying certain clothes.) That makes sense to me, even in Austin's framework.
posted by painquale at 2:14 AM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]

Mainly because that speech act isn't sufficient to bring about the state of affairs in question in the way speech acts do in classic performative cases. (Note that this is consistent with thinking that gender is like the value of money--something determined (broadly speaking) by societal intentions.)
posted by persona au gratin at 2:21 AM on June 4, 2015

Hm. It seems to me that no speech acts are sufficient to being about their intended states of affairs... they only have performative oomph in virtue of a bunch of other social stuff. This includes the classic cases. I can make a marriage pronouncement right now, but it doesn't bring about a marrying state of affairs because a whole bunch of necessary social facts aren't in play.
posted by painquale at 2:29 AM on June 4, 2015 [4 favorites]

But as someone who publishes in philosophy of language and JL Austin, the claim that gender is a performative has never made any sense.

There is a sense by which all outward human seemings are performative: Merleau-Ponty says that "there is no ‘inner’ life that is not a first attempt to relate to another person", by which we can infer that any presentation of self is directed outwardly. Why do we smile? To show an outward seeming of humour or joy or non-threatening-ness: even if we do it alone in a dark room it is still with that positioning of that self in relation to that other, because we are at the most basic a social being (and a social Being). What Butler shows is that presentations of gender belong on that same spectrum; they are not innate.

The thornier thing to wrestle with is that - to a point, anyway - biology is mutable, so things that were not previously on that performative spectrum now in some way exist on that spectrum; that it's not just hair, makeup, nails anymore. Instead, what we had understood as the sexual characteristics of the body are to some extent uncoupled from biology. Breasts, penises, labial folds and so on are to some extent sculptable. It doesn't even matter that these things are done (should we say 'performed'?) or not, their possibility problematises a biological binary of male/female - making that formerly yes/no/on/off dynamic a kind of multiply presentable territory upon which any combination of elements may appear.

MASSIVE CAVEAT: I am a performance studies/sound studies student, and my area is phenomenologies of sound and not gender/queer phenomenology or philosophy. So I have probably said things in a way that is not strictly the way they are said in that field, and for any inadvertent offense I beg your indulgence and forgiveness.
posted by prismatic7 at 3:56 AM on June 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

My slender personal connection to this is: my daughter is majoring in sociology at the University of Melbourne, where Sheila Jeffreys is currently teaching a compulsory course for people doing social sciences (if I understand correctly). My daughter a) calls herself a radical feminist b) has trans friends whom she supports whole-heartedly c) gave me the pleasure of relaying that Jeffreys, in tutorial, said I based on testimony of daughter had done a good job parenting said offspring.

So yeah I emailed the link about 10 seconds after finshing TFA.

I think "we should all have greater freedoms to define and pursue our lives without pathologization" is a rallying cry we can all get behind, class warriors or identity politicians.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:06 AM on June 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

What's very interesting is that the TERFS I know deny that "gender" is anything but an artifact of patriarchy, but act as though gender is a hard biological fact. They really do not act as though they are genderless meat creatures who would be identical to men in their reactions and emotions except for patriarchy. (Perhaps this is because they take their own lived experience into account, just not other people's!)

(I mean, in a complicated way I think that "gender" doesn't exist, but that really doesn't have anything to do with your or my lived experience or needs, or with how someone experiences gender in their own lives right now in the actually existing world where we live. Money "doesn't exist" either but it's the rare radical feminist who will tell you that you shouldn't get a job - a job in the capitalist patriarchy! - because you should be somehow prefiguring a small-c communist utopia by living without money. The radical feminists of my acquaintance have been known to seek better-paying jobs, to celebrate things like pay raises, buy fancy shoes and even to advocate for other workers to get more money. Only trans people (and let's face it, they mean trans women) are expected to fritter their lives away trying to "prefigure" a poorly defined utopia. Everyone else's "imaginary" needs under capitalist patriarchy can be negotiated somehow and are assumed to be deeply felt and meaningful.)
posted by Frowner at 5:23 AM on June 4, 2015 [23 favorites]

This was a great interview. I'll be looking out for more from Cristan Williams.

I'm on a huge Judith Butler kick right now, exclusively based on watching her lectures on youtube. I'm scared to try to actually read Gender Trouble because I've heard she's unreadably dense and also because I wonder if a lot of what she innovated is now so routine to my contemporary thinking. But yes, as expressed above, she is one of the most thoughtful, careful, moral people and I find her interpretations of the world to be immensely comforting in my own struggle for meaning.
posted by latkes at 12:10 PM on June 4, 2015

2. TERFs tend to have neither any understanding of the lived experiences of trans people or even any interest in their experiences, and when they do read about them they tend to skim and lie about their contents. For example, I have seen, time after time, the insistence that transwomen just need to be okay with wearing dresses and adopting female-coded behaviors (which is a fascinating assertion when coupled with the above point about denying the existence of gender) and only extremely rarely seen any acknowledgment that gender dysphoria is real and painful.

I actually think most of those circles can be squared (though perhaps not to the happiness of TERFs, and I admit I don't know what in particular they make of claims like the claim that gender is performative (or perhaps one should say, out of deference to persona au gratin, "a performance" or something like that---though one ought to acknowledge the performativity of more than just speech acts, geez)). I mean, one ought to be able to recognize the social reality of something that is socially enacted and could in principal be otherwise. Money's one example; if you want to say that gender is another, that gender has no non-relational, non-social reality, then you should still be prepared to acknowledge that it does have a social reality. Gender dysphoria could be seen as the manifestation of something that in other cultures (maybe other merely possible cultures) would not take that specific form—think of the way depression, or other mental maladies, have different subjective manifestations in different cultures. (Not to mention the different way depression specifically is treated by those who think of it primarily on the disease model, and by those who don't.)

None of that makes the response "just get used to adopting other behaviors" make much sense theoretically, nor does it make the response any more humane. I mean, really, if you think it's all performance anyway, shouldn't you embrace this form of performance too?

There really shouldn't be an objection, as far as I can tell (so TERFs ought have no reason to be TE), but if there is one, it is, I presume, because the rhetoric associated with transsexuality/transgenderedness seems often to be medicalized or essentialized in a way that implies cross-cultural objective existence to gender—though AFAICT, again, it needn't. Gerry Canavan on twitter some time ago (long enough ago that I doubt I'll be able to find a link to a representative tweet) was finding it strange that "we" had gone from a radicalism and expressivity about sexual orientation in the 90s (he said we were doing that; beats me, I was pretty young then) to talking in essentialist terms about someone's just being gay or straight or what-have-you—all those "when did you decide to be straight?" rhetorical questions (which miss the point, it doesn't have to be the result of an active decision to be decisively influenced by culture). There's a decent political reason for that, insofar as if it really isn't up to someone that they're gay then it's especially galling to deny them the rights and privileges straight people get. Even someone who thinks it's icky, perhaps even someone who thinks it's wrong, might well think that insofar as it's not the person's "fault", we should be tolerant. Whereas if it is up to the person then, if you also think there's something bad about the decision they made, you'll be more inclined to be less tolerant.

I don't think there's anything wrong with being gay so my support for gay rights doesn't much depend on the idea that sexuality is innate. And I think the idea that sexuality is innate is, in a way, kind of unfortunate, since I think it either shuts down, or at least makes weightier, possible behaviors that could otherwise be conceived much more innocently; it makes straightness or gayness or bisexuality or ... into A Thing that You Are.

I thought at the time that Canavan was gesturing in a similar direction at a less odious version of the TERF insistence cited in the bit from Pope Guilty I quoted above (though I don't want to put words in his mouth)—that the rhetoric of transsexuality suggests that gender has a supra-social reality at least somewhat accurately reflected in the way that gender roles are expressed in current society, or that dysphoria plays out as it does because of a (false!) presupposition that there are only so many ways of being a man or of being a woman, and you essentially are not any of those for the one gender but are one of those for the other gender, and so that's the gender that you really are. (And even if you don't conceive of things that way that presentation might well be the only effective one for talking to the majority of people out there, who'll only be sympathetic if they're helping you achieve Who You Really Are and not helping you achieve a radical performance of gender.)

I can see a radical feminist being uncomfortable with that on the grounds that it seems to be recapitulating a lot of essentialism! But it still seems as if such a radical feminist ought to be able to say, you know, "do what thou wilt" as far as the actual people who self-conceive as trans go. It seems as if their preferred ways of conceptualizing sex and gender ought to be able to include them. Especially since utopia isn't exactly around the corner.
posted by kenko at 1:11 PM on June 4, 2015 [3 favorites]

In a sense, I find it easier to compare gender to a vocation. Like, I would be deeply, deeply unhappy if I were not allowed to read [or do something analogous to reading - if I lost my sight, I could still access text-ish kinds of things either via recording or via braille, for instance.] - reading is probably the single most important aspect of my life as I experience it. If I were banned from text for the rest of my life I would probably go into a depression and die. I might be able to make a life for myself with something sort of like text - singing or watching TV or something - but I would not be living my full life.

Whence comes my desire to read? What if I lived in a society that didn't have the written word? How come everyone doesn't care about reading as much as me, doesn't that suggest that humans don't actually need to read? Could I force myself to survive without reading? What if in the radical revolutionary utopia of the future we imagine that everyone communicates solely through beautiful collages of images flashed from brain to brain via our neural implants?

Since I can't really answer those questions, I guess it means that my deep-seated and foundational desire to read must be bullshit, right? What kind of elitist am I? What do I have against the non-readers of the world? Can't I just....try not being a mutant, etc etc? Shouldn't I be trying to prefigure the beautiful revolutionary utopia that I imagine will someday exist by attempting to communicate solely in images?

I don't really have trouble saying that the person I am right now, constituted by the society that I live in right now, wants and needs to read. In another society another person might not care. The fact that I am more than anything else a person who consumes text is not a statement about humans as text-consumers; it's just a statement about this person who has been brought into being in the now. The nowness of being does not invalidate it.
posted by Frowner at 1:38 PM on June 4, 2015 [7 favorites]

Oh hey that interview is good.
posted by kenko at 1:45 PM on June 4, 2015

I'm scared to try to actually read Gender Trouble because I've heard she's unreadably dense

Oh my god she's so wonderfully awful. I mean, there have to be people who read and understand her right away, but I think I would've bombed my fem theory classes had there not been a cottage industry of other writers quoting and simplifying her. But she's awful in a fun way, you know? She's a little addictive, until you realize you have missed the meaning of the last five pages you read and have to go back and try again. Then she's addictive again.

But I'm a bad reader, and spent a good bit of time misreading performativity.

From Critically Queer, talking about misapprehensions from Gender Trouble: "The misapprehension about gender performativity is this: that gender is a choice, or that gender is a role, or that gender is a construction that one puts on, as one puts on clothes in the morning, that there is a "one" who is prior to this gender, a one who goes to the wardrobe of gender and decides with deliberation which gender it will be today. This is a voluntarist account of gender which presumes a subject, intact, prior to its gendering. The sense of gender performativity that I meant to convey is something quite different."

That was the way I'd read her thoughts on gender, and it totally informed everything I thought about it (and sexuality) for a long, long time, basically seeing all gender experience as a form of drag, and dismissing anyone who felt there was, as she puts it in the FPP interview, "a basic, fundamental, enduring, and necessary dimension of who we are," the "sexed embodiment." It totally fit my little worldview where everyone around me is essentially an incomprehensible robot that could only be understood by observing patterns of behavior...but it sort of aggressively denied any sort of continuous gender identity. That this might be insulting and belittling to people who do experience gender differently than I do, did not occur to me.

But, of course, I got her wrong. Picking up from the above: "Gender is performative insofar as it is the effect of a regulatory regime of gender differences in which genders are divided and hierarchized under constraint. Social constraints, taboos, prohibitions, threats of punishment operate in the ritualized repetition of norms, and this repetition constitutes the temporalized scene of gender construction and destabilization. There is no subject who precedes or enacts this repetition of norms." But within that regime are gaps, failures, that can be exploited: "The practice by which gendering occurs, the embodying of norms, is a compulsory practice, a forcible production, but not for that reason fully determining. To the extent that gender is an assignment, it is an assignment which is never quite carried out according to expectation, whose addressee never quite inhabits the ideal s/he is compelled to approximate."

What I think of, when I read that, is actually a little ridiculous, but I'll say it anyway. Lately when I'm at the store, I pass by this Christian book kiosk on my way to the checkout. And something I've been noticing as I pass by, is how many books are about masculinity...or, more specifically, self-help books for Christian men who are manning wrong. There's usually a guy climbing a mountain on the cover. And I see piles of these books at the used bookstores, too, so someone is actually buying them. Which is so strange to me, you know, because if anyone should be comfortable in their gender, it should be the American Christian Male. It would not occur to me that they experience their gender as a system of constraints, taboos, and prohibitions--that they would experience it as anything other than nature, biology, and the love of God for men especially. And yet here are these books, indicating either a readership that feels it has failed its gender, or at least a publisher banking on the profitability of policing it. And this of course ties in to all the etiquette books and homemaking manuals and cooking shows, a vast literature of social stricture to make sure women stayed within their limits as well (or to quote Butler again: "Femininity is ... not the product of a choice, but the forcible citation of a norm, one whose complex historicity is indissociable from relations of disclipine, regulation, punishment.").

(Why is this boundary so forcefully policed? What do people think will happen if someone accidentally crosses that line?)

So anyway, when she says this in the interview, I'm like, why didn't you mention this back in the 90s when I was young and impressionable? It is so much simpler: "Gender can be very important to us, and some people really love the gender that they have claimed for themselves. If gender is eradicated, so too is an important domain of pleasure for many people. And others have a strong sense of self bound up with their genders, so to get rid of gender would be to shatter their self-hood. I think we have to accept a wide variety of positions on gender. Some want to be gender-free, but others want to be free really to be a gender that is crucial to who they are."
posted by mittens at 5:30 PM on June 4, 2015 [12 favorites]

That's a clear, smart way of looking at it, mittens. Nicely done.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:00 AM on June 5, 2015

So, thirty years ago, when I was a larval college student, I took a seminar called Gender, Identity and Desire, and it was taught by a young Judith Butler. That class changed not only my academic trajectory, but how I understood myself--the sort of transformation we romantically hope college classes will do, but that rarely actually occurs. Anyway, there I was, this young intersex person with no vocabulary to think about my experience outside the pathologizing medical one, and Butler gave me the tools to do so. A few years later, she would publish the materials we engaged with in that seminar in her classic book Gender Trouble.

However, in recent years, as an intersex trans academic and advocate, it's been dismaying to see how Gender Trouble and its central theme of gender performativity have been cited many times by transphobic people who think of themselves as radical feminists--some old second-wavers, but others young university students. They share a belief that there is no such thing as gender identity--only an evil (for those assigned male at birth) or Stockholm-syndrome-style (for those assigned female) embracing of patriarchy. These TERFs see themselves as having escaped this trap, and as realizing that gender is fake--a performance in an oppressive play that most are fooled into thinking is real. And because Judith Butler speaks about gender performativity and the value of gender subversion, they cite her as "proof" that trans people are dupes who are in love with patriarchy and gender stereotypes.

What Judith Butler makes clear in this interview is that Gender Trouble is a book that was written in the 1980s (though the publication date is in 1990, the seminar which I took with Butler in which she was working through the manuscript took place in the mid 80s). This was a very different era, in terms of thinking about sex, gender, and sexuality. The humanities were enthralled with the then-novel precepts of postmodernism and deconstruction. Sexual identity politics were still nascent, and not only were trans issues little on the radar, wars were being fought on campuses over the legitimacy of a bisexual identity.

Gender Trouble is still a very interesting book, but it's hardly a bible. Judith Butler herself has moved on in the way she thinks about and frames issues. Her main project remains the same, and it is mine as well--to find ways about talking about the constraints put on us as people with legal sexes and gender identities and gender expressions and sexualities, and to look for ways to increase our agency to escape those constraints. Butler makes it very explicit here that she embraces trans identities and despises transmisogyny as fully as she does misogyny aimed at cis women. She asserts the lived reality of gender identity, states that she too has a gender identity she experiences as fully real and unchanging.

Butler continues to use the language of gender performativity instead of the more broadly used language of social construction. But she makes it clear here that the two ways of talking about gender are very similar in her mind, and that they are both misused by TERFs. To say gender is performative or socially constructed is not to deny its reality, or frame it as voluntary--something we put on in the morning when we choose an outfit. The way I as a sociologist put it is this: that we are naturally social beings. Our biological reality is that we cannot think or live without being members of a society, and from birth this shapes not just our behavior, but our bodies and brains. Now, societies vary--they employ different languages; they may understand sex as a binary, or as comprised by three or more categories; they have different gender roles and norms, so that, for example, women may be viewed as physically weak, or women may be viewed as the physically robust gender expected to carry massive water jugs for miles on their heads. Experiences of sex, gender and sexuality vary hugely across times and cultures--but all of these variations are real for those living within them. And in all societies, there are those who do not conform to the norms. The question then becomes how those minorities are treated: are their variations celebrated, treated as having no more or less significance than variations in toe length, or are they despised and marginalized? For those who are marginalized in any society, "liberation" consists of seeking to be treated with social respect without hiding their sense of authentic selfhood. For intersex and trans people today, this involves trying to change social institutions and beliefs that frame sex as a binary and sex assignment at birth as immutable. So, recognizing that binary sex is a social construct, as are particular ideas about who is a "real" woman or man, as is the social ideology that alternative gender identities are not "real"--that recognition is important. What is socially constructed can be changed over time through social movements.

What recognizing that gender is social constructed or performative is not is some excuse to perpetuate transphobia, especially transmisogyny. And that's what Butler assures us she agrees with in this interview.
posted by DrMew at 10:16 AM on June 5, 2015 [14 favorites]

I really want to understand this better. Would a fair paraphrase be something like, "Yes, gender is a performance. But requiring someone to perform gendered behaviors that are deeply uncomfortable to them is cruel. People can legitimately be much more comfortable performing the role of one gender than the other, and there's no reason not to let them inhabit the role they feel at home in, if we're not going to eliminate gender roles entirely? Also, there is no reason to eliminate gender roles entirely -- most people rather like them, even if there are a few aspects they'd want to change."

I mean, I'm an introvert. I don't know if that's genetic or what, but I do feel like it's an important part of my identity and like I've always been an introvert. And when I'm put in a position where I am hosting an event or something and can't ever get any alone-time to recover and have to always be "on," I end up pretty miserable after a while. I guess that's a situation in which I've sometimes been required to perform a certain role that I'm just, intrinsically for whatever reason, not comfortable in. Is that maybe what it what it feels like, being expected to "perform" the male gender all the time, for instance, when you just intrinsically, for whatever reason, aren't comfortable in that role?

For me, this has always been hard to understand, since I guess I just don't have a very strong gender identity. I'm a cis woman and I'm comfortable with that, even though I've never been a very "feminine" person, in the stereotypical sense. I feel like I would also be more or less okay with having to live as a man for the rest of my life, if somebody were to cast a spell on me that made everyone see me as male. So I've just struggled to really be able to empathize...

But for me, if I'm understanding it right, this "gender performance" notion does offer a helpful way to look at it. Making people who are afraid of public speaking go up on stage, or forcing a naturally cautious person to gamble, or telling a talkative person to "shut up"... I can certainly empathize with the discomfort of having to "perform" unnatural behaviors on those contexts.

I don't really like the notion that there are "inherently female" behaviors -- like all women should enjoy dressing up in fancy clothes and being demonstrative and affectionate in public, or whatever. But I guess I can see that, in our society, there are definitely "feminine" and "masculine" behaviors and sets of expectations, and even if those lists of behaviors and expectations are sort of arbitrary... I can see someone feeling deeply uncomfortable with some or most of the behaviors on the list they've been assigned, and way more comfortable with the other list. Is that more or less what people mean when they say that they feel like they've been assigned the wrong gender? Not, for a trans woman, that there's some list of characteristics that defines a "female" mind, and they have all the characteristics on that list... But that there are a list of behaviors that define the "feminine" role in our society, and they are much more comfortable with those behaviors?
posted by OnceUponATime at 11:25 AM on June 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

OnceUponATime, gender identity (feeling like a man, woman, genderqueer, genderflexible, agender, etc.) is not the same thing as gender expression (being masculine or feminine or androgynous in dress, gestural habits, interests, etc.). I'm a trans man, but I am much more interested in cooking than sports, and my trans woman spouse generally wears jeans and a tank top and knows way more about cars than I do. When I was living as a woman, I wore and enjoyed dresses. If it was just a matter of being able to be masculine or feminine in gender presentation, there'd be no need to gender transition, as cis people are often gender-nonconforming.

It may be that the reason you have trouble understanding why someone would gender transition is because your gender identity is actually not at all what is typical for a cis person. I have done an exercise with many hundreds of students over the years in which I illustrate that cis people do indeed have gender identities by asking who would take me up on a faux offer of a million dollars to permanently gender transition (with access to any transition services they wish also paid for by me). Only 1 or 2 in a hundred who are not already trans identified and wishing to transition say they would take me up on it. Most react very negatively to the idea. So your feeling that you would be fine spending the rest of your life as a man is very atypical.

Not to impose an identity upon you, but let me just suggest that you may in fact be agender. Feeling like you're not really a woman or a man or some other gender is in itself a gender identity (some call it "neutrois"). People with agender identities may not recognize that their experience is atypical, since they are not interested in gender transitioning. I know a good number who presumed that their experience was universal, and that nobody except a few oddballs felt a strong sense of having a gender identity. But this is not the case. Anyway, not knowing what it feels like to have a gender identity makes it hard to understand what it would feel like to have one, just as someone who is blind will have difficulty understanding what the experience of sight is like.

Just believe me when I say that I, like most, do in fact have a gender identity, and wish to have it acknowledged by others.
posted by DrMew at 11:57 AM on June 5, 2015 [4 favorites]

For me, this has always been hard to understand, since I guess I just don't have a very strong gender identity. I'm a cis woman and I'm comfortable with that, even though I've never been a very "feminine" person, in the stereotypical sense. I feel like I would also be more or less okay with having to live as a man for the rest of my life, if somebody were to cast a spell on me that made everyone see me as male. So I've just struggled to really be able to empathize...

I would really, really ask you to sit with this a little bit. What might instantly becoming a man entail, leaving aside any science-y hormonal stuff? I say this as someone who still isn't sure whether they will ever transition, so I've thought a good deal about living as a man, and I have noticed that a lot of people say they "don't care" what gender they are when there's no possibility that they will ever live as anything but their gender assigned at birth.

How would your relationships with your women friends change? How would your relationships with your male friends change? What de facto women's spaces could you no longer access? How would you deal with all the gendered behavior that is expected, frex, in a barber shop or in the bathroom? How would you deal with being expected to be a man in romantic/sexual relationships, whether this meant that you would suddenly be perceived as gay, suddenly be perceived as straight or have your relationships be very different in terms of what gender you're dating when people read you as queer? How would you deal with it when other men tried to be all bro-ishly misogynist with you? What would happen when you either had to give up many of the modes of speech and habits of dress to which you've been accustomed or else be subject to homophobic abuse? How would you deal with your memories of girlhood?

And you're already assuming that you'll be under a "spell" rather than taking hormones or undergoing surgery, and you're assuming that you will pass completely right off the bat. You're certainly not saying that you'll go through life telling people that you are a man and either choosing not to change your physical presentation or still being read as a woman.

I know that's not the point of your comment, but I think it's really helpful to try to imagine just how complex and pervasive gender stuff is. "You being turned into a man" is almost certainly going to be much more complicated and life-altering than you think it is, even if you're simply zapped into maleness through magic.

You're thinking, too, of gender as Behavior That We Choose To Do, rather than a complicated web of social relations that we're enmeshed in.

Consider....oh, let's consider going to the gym, since that's a space where people often experience my gender as confusing so I think about it a lot. My gym is like a lot of gyms - almost all ladies [to surface appearance] on the elliptical, gender mix on the treadmills, almost all dudes [to surface appearance, etc] in the weight area, almost all dudes on the barbells, gender mix on the weight machines, mostly women in the stretching/floor room, virtually all women in the classes, especially zumba and other dance-based modes. Women wear tight stretchy clothes; men wear clothes that range from not that tight to pretty baggy. Women shave their bodies; men, for the most part, do not.

And that still leaves out the countless gendered interactions - that if I ask a guy when he's going to be done with the weight cage, that's a really different interaction from when a dude asks him, for instance - tone of voice, body language, word choice on one hand and how seriously the request is taken on the other. There are all kinds of deeply embedded ways of interacting that we all learn on a really deep level from childhood. We don't all learn to perform them successfully; some of us are very conscious of them; some of us are very conscious of them because trying to perform them is hard or feels bad.

We're constantly being "hailed" by others as one gender or another in all kinds of teeny tiny ways. Seeing these ways and figuring out how we feel about them is really complicated.

I personally don't experience the whole thing as "if only I could act and dress like a man and not get sexist crap". Many people try to be, e.g., really butch queer women and find that this isn't the same as transitioning and then feel that they need to transition.

I guess, maybe try to think about if someone told you that although you had normal vision, you had to wear a blindfold all the time for the rest of your life. Plenty of blind people are perfectly happy, right? There's nothing wrong with being unable to see, and life is full of satisfactions that don't require sight! Plenty of people lose their vision as they age, too - maybe that would have happened to you and you would have dealt with it. What do you need vision for, anyway?

And yet you'd find yourself wishing you could look at things, because you know what looking is and there's no reason that you can't do it except the culture that's put the blindfold on you. You'd get used to it, but you'd still have dreams about seeing. You'd be happy sometimes. You'd probably pick up a lot of interesting cultural stuff from other people who couldn't see. You'd probably make friends in that community and come to identify with it. And you'd have real trouble explaining just what was so bad about not being able to see, because trying to explain why you want to see is this personal bodily thing - it's not a word thing. Sure, you can say that it's more convenient for you to see - but is it? There are lots of ways of being in the world that don't require sight. And you know from experience that you can be perfectly happy in the world without sight. You just....want to see because you can.

And meanwhile everyone around you says that the desire to see is just a cultural phenomenon and that it's vaguely insulting to expect others to believe you when you say you want to take off the blindfold, and you can't even really explain what it is about seeing that is so appealing to you.

Like, I can't explain why I don't "feel like a woman", and it's hard to explain. I don't feel good in this body, I don't like to be touched in this body, I feel startled that I look as I do, I don't like to hear myself called "she". If I were to transition, I would not become some kind of scenery chewing he-man...in a way, as you seem to imply, I'd be myself but male. And yet that's so different from how you seem to imagine it, so much more pervasive and diffuse.
posted by Frowner at 12:10 PM on June 5, 2015 [8 favorites]

I guess, when I think about it, I think about it as a desire that is deeply rooted in both my body and cultural stuff, and it's a positive desire - a desire to be something. It's not the same as the desire not to be treated as "woman as sex class". I mean, I would be happier in the world if I were not treated as "woman as sex class", yes, but that would not be about my lived gender, it would be about not being treated badly.

Maybe at some point there will be some kind of Science! that really does completely explain why there are trans or gender non-conforming people (and maybe this will be after the revolution, so it's not used to medically gatekeep or as a way to, like, selectively abort trans people or something). I tend to think that this is at very best a long way off, because when I consider how many, many ways there are of being gender non-conforming across human cultures, I feel that it's unlikely that there's a simple Science explanation.

I guess the thing that has always confused me about TERFs' and others' desire to keep people from transitioning is this: If I wanted to be an English professor - with every fiber of my being! - and I said to people, "I know that I will need to give up a lot of earning potential and grad school is horrible and I probably won't get a tenure track job and I might have to spend my entire career adjuncting or move to Outer Podunk and I'll never make much money, but this is the only thing I can possibly envision doing and I know I will be miserable if I can't be a scholar"...If I said that, people might think it was a foolish thing to do. Some people might try to dissuade me. Some people might try to say that being an English professor actually sucks. But no one would try to tell me that I didn't want to be an English professor, that it was a delusion. They might want me to create a narrative for them about why I wanted this career - childhood of reading, love of writing, obsession with literary minutia, successful TAing in college, etc - but they wouldn't challenge that narrative. They would assume that they could trust me to narrate my own experience. And if someone tried to say "we think there should be extremely restrictive laws about just who can access English PhD programs" that would never fly.

What I want to stress is that if I said I wanted to be an English professor, I would be considered a reliable self-reporter, even if being an English professor sucks, even if I got my ideas about being a professor from novels about Oxford in the 1920s, even if my interlocutor didn't really care about work and had bounced around from barrista gig to convenience store manager to freelance pet sitter themselves.

And yet we have FAR more evidence that transitioning makes trans people feel better than we have evidence that desiring to be an English professor leads to a happy career.

If no one cares when you undertake something life-altering, momentous and risky like getting a humanities PhD or doing that air-glider-sailing-suit thing that those two guys died doing last month....what right do they have to care if you want to transition?
posted by Frowner at 1:02 PM on June 5, 2015 [9 favorites]

Thank you, Frowner and Dr. Mew, for taking the time to address my comments so patiently. I know it must be tiring to be forever trying to explain, and since I really do want to understand, I appreciate your generosity.

Maybe I really am agender. I guess that doesn't sound like a totally outrageous idea to me. Maybe some of those TERFs are too? (I am not a TERF, BTW. Regardless of whether I understand what trans people are experiencing, I want to be supportive.) I feel like I can easily imagine how hard it would be to re-adjust, post-transition, the discomfort and dislocation of changing roles when those roles are so pervasive... It's the pre-transition pain (which must be much worse) that I wish I could understand better.

But I guess, if I really have no more hope of really understanding that feeling of having a strong gender identity than a blind person does of understanding color, I will probably hold on to that "introvert forced to host the event" metaphor anyway, as maybe the closest I'm able to come in my own personal understanding. I don't, really, think of "introvert" as a set of behaviors I choose. It's just how I am; I don't know why; I don't think I can change it. So it seems to sort of correspond to your descriptions, still.

Thanks again.
posted by OnceUponATime at 1:10 PM on June 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

How would you deal with all the gendered behavior that is expected, frex, in a barber shop or in the bathroom?

Apparently barber shops are my madeleines. The waves of nostalgia are suffocating. This is why I shave my head (or lately, give myself stranded-on-a-desert-isle without-a-mirror undercuts). The last place I lived, there was a barbershop, newly opened, less than a block away, that emphasized its old-fashioned manliness, and I kept thinking, I should just go, I should just get a real haircut the way people do, but I couldn't.

When I was little, my dad would take me to the barber shop, where everything was very large and red leather and chrome and mysterious. There were three barbers, one an old man whose name I can't remember (but who was very tickled to announce that if anyone ever asked him to cut a mohawk, he would do it for free, since he had never had the pleasure before); one a young man named Sonny who reminds me now of a 20-something Steve Buscemi having overdosed on haldol (my father bristled at Sonny for reasons I could not fathom--was it the long slow looks he cast over the room with his heavy, swollen eyes? there was something dangerous about him, I understood, something to do with languor and idleness); and my favorite, James.

James, I had a total little-boy crush on. He would fit so perfectly into the world today, with his short sleeves rolled up even shorter, showing off his bicep with its fading green lady tattoo, spreading out under his skin like verdigris. Front pocket tight with his cigarettes and lighter. Sideburns, not quite a pompadour but that other cut that kind of looks like that, heavy hornrims, and a smile just this side of plump. I always wanted my hair cut by James (although I never, ever wanted my hair cut, if that makes sense).

I would wait my turn amongst men who smelled like machine oil and aftershave and sweat, looking at magazines about bass fishing and deer hunting, or maybe flipping through that bible story book that was always in waiting rooms back then, the one with the blue cover, with the illustrations where everyone's skin is very shiny? Listening to the thock of clippers turned on, the heavy buzz of them. Mystery bottles of hair tonic and faded girly calendars and leather strops. And when it was my turn I would sit on the little bench they would put on the barber's chair, I would say please give me the little boy's haircut, and I would get my hair cut and listen to the men talk. Incomprehensible talk.

I do not know if I can describe the feeling of alienation. It wasn't as bad as swimming lessons--that was nothing but terror and screaming, begging to go home--but it was alien, deeply so, being invited into a world I was supposed to belong to but could not quite figure out how.

It's not that I had anything against grooming (though oh how I hated those haircuts and the ridicule at school for days afterwards)...I could sit with my mother for hours and watch her apply lotions, makeup, the intricate pinning of many sizes of curlers into hair. These were actions that made sense, on a fundamental level. They were comforting. Picking out jewelry, inspecting rings, bracelets, trying on the old screw-on earrings inherited from some aunt or other. Apparently one must draw the line at actually trying on her clothes, though, as I found out to some mutual embarrassment.

Somehow this carries on. I can navigate Sephora, but I can't go in the man barber shop. I can understand performance, but I can't understand identity. I can believe someone else feels it, and wish I knew what it felt like so I could compare it to what I feel, but what I feel is always this strange amalgam of memories and fears and failures that does not feel like an identity, it feels like...practices. Rituals, some that give comfort, and some that are terrifying.

I have made accommodations. I have tried to carve out a life that does not involve so much anxiety that I cannot breathe, so: I do not wear makeup. I do not wear woman clothes. My nails are trim and uncolored. I have a beard.

The change is startling. People treat you very differently when you have a beard, when you do not try to queer your gender-appearance, when you give off whatever signal it is they're looking for. Being treated like a man is like being invited into the most boring secret club in the world. I say 'boring' but I should also say kinda scary. I still don't understand what men talk about. I don't understand what they want. What does it feel like, being them? I have a friend, a more recent friend who isn't aware of all this stuff, and he invites me to go places and do sporty things and I just quiver and stammer and make excuses. Doesn't he know? Why can't he tell? Do they not realize the danger signals they give off? Don't they know what it's like to worry that you will say the wrong word, or say it in the wrong way, and that will be it, and you'll be back to nothing but violence? They're reading performance as identity too. They're saying they understand something that I'm not allowed to understand. And it is so frustrating.

On the other hand, I find these discussions very liberating. To hear that it is okay to sort of set identity aside for a bit, to have it separate from expression (or desired expression), is a cool breeze of sanity. To not constantly worry about having to state a big final self-definition whenever the topic comes up. To not have to name, to be allowed to describe instead. These thought experiments are worth any number of trembling anonymous AskMes, and I respect the wisdom that has been spoken in this thread so much.
posted by mittens at 4:33 PM on June 5, 2015 [5 favorites]

An affirmation, with a caveat attached:

OnceUponATime, it's excellent that you want to understand gender dysphoria, and your metaphor of being an introvert forced sometimes to act like an extrovert is definitely useful, in that few choose to be an introvert or extrovert, that it feels like an innate part of selfhood, and that for an introvert to be forced to act like an extrovert feels very uncomfortable.

The problem I have with the metaphor, and I'm sure I'm not the only trans person who would have it, is that it really underplays the stigma and marginalization involved with owning a trans identity, and how that complicated matters. Sure, our society has a tendency to privilege extroversion. But to have the metaphor be more apt, we'd have to imagine that for you to say, "Hey, I'm not an extrovert, although everyone seems to presume I am, and my birth certificate and driver's license and school records and loan applications all say 'E' on them," would have profound social consequences, as Frowner discusses in terms of gender. You'd have to live in a society in which your name was one given to extroverts, and extroverts and introverts are spoken about using different pronouns--and of course, everyone is used to calling you by that name and using that pronoun. You'd have to have changing an "E" to an "I" require seeing a therapist and convincing them you really are an introvert, and getting a letter from them stating this. You'd then be diagnosed as mentally ill, until you saw a doctor for some kind of medical treatment, and changed your name and all your IDs, and convinced friends and family and employers to call you by a new name and speak about you differently. You'd have to have a world in which I/E transition is considered creepy, associated by many with sexual perversion, considered by many religious authorities to be a sin, treated as a reason for a dishonorable discharge from the military, and experienced as shameful and embarrassing by many families. Introverts and extroverts would have to be expected to dress differently, speak differently and move differently. And for someone to say they are an I while being perceived by others as an E would have to trigger street harassment, employment discrimination, widespread mockery and sometimes violence.

In short, the metaphor of having a trans identity being like being an introvert forced to act like an extrovert works on the level of locating some other aspect of selfhood that feels innate and uncomfortable to deny. But it leaves out how admitting to oneself and others that one has a particular identity is complicated by deep stigma.

So if the metaphor works for you personally as a tool for empathy, that's great! But I wouldn't really suggest that you advise others to adopt the metaphor, unless you're willing to explain all of what we've just gone over.
posted by DrMew at 5:34 PM on June 5, 2015 [4 favorites]

I do like the I/E metaphor in terms of expressing the whole "how do you know you're trans/where does your gender identity come from" thing, though, and I think I'm going to add it to my rhetorical toolbox. It really illustrates how you can have something profound and foundational about yourself that can only be known through self-report, and it illustrates how we are generally willing to trust that self report. It also seems like a good metaphorical answer for the "why are people trans" question because...well, why are people introverted? No one has trouble believing that it's maybe a mixture of hardwired stuff, culture and personal experience - no one says "well, you are clearly introverted because you spent too much time alone as a kid, so your introversion is a lie!!!*" In general, people are willing to accept that there might be many causes of introversion or extroversion and sussing out the exact cause isn't especially important.

In my conversations with TERF-ish people, they tend to lean a lot on the "how can we trust people's self-evaluation because False Consciousness Under Patriarchy", and I think it's really useful to be able to point out all the times that we do trust people's self reporting, and that you can't logically believe in false consciousness only when it's about something you disapprove of.

*I mean, I'm sure there are people who say that kind of shit, but I think in our culture it's much weirder to say "no, you're not really extroverted, stop saying that" than it is to challenge someone's gender identity.
posted by Frowner at 5:52 PM on June 5, 2015 [5 favorites]

In my conversations with TERF-ish people, they tend to lean a lot on the "how can we trust people's self-evaluation because False Consciousness Under Patriarchy", and I think it's really useful to be able to point out all the times that we do trust people's self reporting, and that you can't logically believe in false consciousness only when it's about something you disapprove of.

Yeah, exactly. While of course its true that kyriarchy does all kids of shitty unknowable stuff to our heads, TERFs try to pick and choose whose reportage they trust. And that's not a good look.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:42 PM on June 5, 2015

(and to take it further, I think it's incumbent on all of us not to cast disproportionate or unwarranted skepticism at the claims of the most disempowered among us and to recognize that doing so is the standard state of affairs.)
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:15 PM on June 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

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