On No, Here We Go Again

This is for Twilight, who asked an interesting question yesterday and deserves a better answer than the one I gave her last night. The rest of you can skip this if you are tired of gender politics.

Twilight said:

I truly am not getting something. Perhaps it’s the flavor of feminists I’m familiar with — but gaining equal rights for women (and often, by extension, for gays/lesbians and, from my experience, any other “downtrodden” group) seems to be the focus for those that I know.

What possible reason can there be for a class of folks (”feminists”) to want to deride any group, much less the relatively small transgender community?

I can find neither logic nor advantage for that group to deride such a group — so what am I missing?

It occurred to me after I turned my computer off last night that Julie Bindel had actually addressed most of the issues in her interview with Christine Burns, and I ought to explain her position more thoroughly. I shall attempt to recreate the 1970s feminist position here.

It all starts with the idea that women are oppressed by men. That’s not hard to understand, especially 40 years and more ago. So women looked around at their lives and they noticed things about how they lived. They were encouraged to wear high heels and tight skirts, that made it hard to run away from an attacker; they were encouraged to wear cosmetics that made them look permanently sexually aroused; they were encouraged to play with dolls to prepare them for having children; and so on. And they came to the conclusion that these things were nothing to do with being women, they were just brainwashing, and if they could get rid of the brainwashing then women could be equal with men.

They called the thing that they wanted to get rid of “gender”, and under that description they put all the things that they saw made women “women” (as opposed to merely female), and all the things that made men “men”, as opposed to merely male. Bindel says in the interview that she wants to get rid of gender. By that she means that she wants to be free to wear trousers, not wear make-up, not have children, be a lesbian, maybe play rugby for all I know. And good luck to her, if that’s what she wants.

But there was a potential flaw in the argument. What if there was something about being a woman that made you want to wear pretty clothes, cry at romantic movies and have babies? What if there was something biological to all of this?

Men, of course, claimed that there was. They claimed that women were “naturally suited” to doing all the things that men wanted then to do (looking pretty, being defenseless, having babies) whereas men were “naturally suited” to doing important things like beating each other up, being in charge and looking after all of the money.

Naturally the feminists opposed this, and as is the way of human beings they decided to take exactly the opposite stance. They developed a theory that held that all gender, all of these differences between men and women (beyond the obvious body stuff) were the result of upbringing (i.e. brainwashing). For many feminists that has remained a core belief, an article of faith. For them gender is simply an artifact of how we are brainwashed as children, and it is therefore something that we can get rid of.

I chose the term “article of faith” deliberately back there because that is the way the “gender = nurture” argument is often presented. And like many articles of faith it has unfortunate consequences. One is to do with transgendered people. You see, if you believe that gender is solely the result of upbringing, then anyone who is raised as a boy can only ever be a boy. Even if she grew a womb and breasts and a vagina she would still be a boy, because gender is a product of upbringing. Consequently, for a feminist with that belief, a trans woman can never, ever be anything other than a man, because she was raised a boy. How she behaves, how she looks, how she feels about herself, are all irrelevant, because upbringing trumps all. This is why you will hear the term “womyn-born-womyn”, by which feminists mean that only someone who is born and raised a woman can ever have the right to call herself a woman.

Unfortunately time has not been kind to this idea, and it has foundered in a number of ways. Firstly there is some scientific evidence to suggest that it is not entirely true. You can do experiments with very young babies that show gendered differences in behavior. And there is plenty of evidence that male brains and female brains show substantial differences in wiring, not all of which are the result of upbringing. Feminists who cling to the “gender = nurture” argument tend to claim that such evidence is falsified by evil male scientists (and brainwashed female scientists). I don’t know enough about the details to judge, but there does seem to be a lot of this sort of research out there.

Then, of course, there are transsexuals, who are remarkably consistent in their claims to have “known” that their bodies were the wrong gender from a very early age. Again feminists claim that they have been brainwashed, and have been coached to say such things by evil male doctors.

A bigger problem for the theory is that it has foundered on the rock of experience. Feminists mothers who have tried to raise their children in gender-neutral environments have discovered, to their horror, that their daughters still grow up to be women and their sons still grow up to be men. Getting rid of gender has proved remarkably difficult. Here feminists will claim that outside influences trump anything the poor mother can do, and the only way to raise children correctly is to hide them away from the world in an Amish-like community where they can’t have their minds polluted by school mates or the media.

But perhaps the biggest problem has been with women themselves. The idea that in order to be a “proper woman”, in the manner approved of by a 1970s feminist, you had to dress like a sack of potatoes and become a lesbian has proved unattractive with many women. Way too many young women these days say that they don’t want to be feminists, because their view of what a feminist is has been colored by media presentations of exactly the sort of extreme and boring ideologues that I’ve been talking about. This is a Very Bad Thing, because sexism still exists, and we don’t want to lose the fight because we’ve discouraged young women from joining it.

So feminism has evolved, and only dinosaurs like Bindel and Germaine Greer have stayed behind in their 1970s attitudes. These days most people accept that there are many ways to be a feminist. You can be a dyke on a bike, you can be a delicate femme lesbian, you can be a soccer star, you can be a fashion model, you can be a rocket scientist and/or a mother. It really doesn’t matter, as long as you believe in equality for women. Only the dinosaurs still claim that wearing a skirt or makeup, or falling in love with a man, is letting the side down.

There is, however, one specific charge that Bindel lays against trans women in the interview that needs to be addressed. She claims that trans women actively encourage stereotypical female behavior, and indeed are stereotypes themselves. (She once famously claimed that a word full of transsexuals would be like the set of Grease.) There are many reasons why she might think this, and why it is an unfair allegation. I’d like to detail some of them here.

The first is actually the fault of doctors. Talk to trans women and you will find that many of them, particularly the older ones, will have had unfortunate encounters with male doctors who have no idea what being a woman is all about. They would get into conversations like this:

Doctor: “I thought you said you wanted to be a woman.”

Trans woman: “I am a woman, what’s the problem?”

Doctor: “You are wearing trousers.”

Trans woman: “These are Calvin Klein designer jeans, as featured in this month’s Cosmopolitan, they cost me a fortune!”

Doctor: “They are trousers. If you want to continue your treatment then you need to start dressing like a woman. Next time you come to see me I expect you to be wearing a dress. And you should get yourself a nice set of pearls too.”

So in order to keep the doctors happy, trans women have had to do all sorts of odd things that they might not particularly have wanted to do. Thankfully those days seem to be going away, but I’m sure there are still issues in some parts of the world. The point is, however, that what you do to keep a silly doctor happy is not necessarily reflective of the real you. I’ve met lots of trans women, and most of them dress just like other women, which these days often means jeans, sneakers and t-shirts.

The next issue is experience. Catch a trans woman early in her transition and she will probably not have quite got the hang of the whole fashion and style thing. Remember that, unlike other women, she hasn’t had years of experience, she’s only been doing this for a few months. Give her time, and she’ll settle down and look a lot less outlandish.

Then there is the media to think of. If you see a trans woman in the media you can be pretty sure she’ll be done up to the nines. Because, you know, the media is obsessed with the appearance of women full stop. Give them a trans woman, and they become even more obsessed. So if your experience of trans women is limited solely to those you have seen in newspapers and on TV, it isn’t surprising that you think they all want to look like Britney Spears. But that’s not the real population you are looking at; any more than the contents of a gossip magazine is reflective of the real population of all women.

And finally, I am happy to admit that trans women do, in general, try to fit in. They try to look “normal”. That isn’t because they have bought into a stereotype and want to perpetuate it. It is simple self preservation. Because, you know, discrimination against trans people, and trans women in particular, is still rife, even in supposedly liberal countries like the UK. (Remember that survey I pointed to – two thirds of all respondents in a survey in Wales admitted to being prejudiced against transgender people.) Obviously more young men get murdered than any other social group, but as a percentage of their population trans women may well be top of that unfortunate league table. What I am sure of is that if you murder a trans woman you are far more likely to get off without punishment than if you murder any other type of person. (And I mean you probably have a better than 50% chance of being acquitted.)

So yes, trans woman do try to conform, and they do so because they are terrified of being identified as trans women, and therefore being ridiculed, beaten up, or even killed. Complaining about them because they do so, Ms. Bindel, is really unforgivably cruel.

6 thoughts on “On No, Here We Go Again

  1. They developed a theory that held that all gender, all of these differences between men and women (beyond the obvious body stuff) were the result of upbringing (i.e. brainwashing). For many feminists that has remained a core belief, an article of faith.

    Herein lies my lack of understanding. It’s not that I don’t remember this extreme version of feminism (or so it seems to me), but that I was first taught by my rather more accepting-of-Other-Mother that this was an extreme view and that I came to believe that on my own as I grew up.

    That anyone would deny the nature/nurture mix has never made any sense to me — but i was a psych major with folks from the medical side of the field, so that’s not completely surprising.

    Given that I had completely forgotten about this rather extreme view, I’m not surprised I was lost.

    Thanks for explaining it in historical context — it makes much more sense that way.

    I will note, for the record, that of the two post-op transsexuals that I’m aware of (both male-to-female), one of them got exactly that sort of crap from the doctor — and this was less than 10 years ago (“if you’re not going to live like a female, we’ll never be able to progress to the next step” kind of crap). The other got no crap at all (and made the transition more like 20 years ago) and is something of a “tomboy” (to use the parlance used on me growing up :>).

    But *wow* — the idea that one’s definition of feminism should be determinative of everyone else’s gender choices in the world is just nutty. The whole point of feminism (as it was taught to me, in 60’s and ’70’s by my New England mother) was that each of us should be able to define our gender as we wished and that it shouldn’t matter to how we are paid, who gets promoted, where we live, or any of the other equality issues that are what we’re supposed to be fighting for/about.

    That’s why *my* mother burned *her* bra anyway…

  2. As far as I’m concerned the explanation that both nature and nurture play a part is so obvious that I can’t see why other people can’t see it. But clearly Bindel can’t. She says very clearly in the interview that being lesbian must be either nature or nurture, it can’t possibly be both. And that actually leads her to go against the prevailing LGBT orthodoxy and claim that being lesbian is a choice, albeit not quite as simple a choice as which breakfast cereal to buy. If you are wedded to binary thinking in that way then I guess it is inevitable that you get sucked into extreme views.

    But, as you say, it is extreme. While there are still many feminists who think that way, they are not a majority, and hopefully they are getting fewer as time goes on.

  3. Thanks, Cheryl, I found that a really, REALLY interesting and useful analysis.

    The debate about how much of us is the product of our heredity and how much the product of our environment, though, I think goes back way, way further than 1970s feminism (or, indeed, the origin of the term feminism).


  4. Thanks Suzanne, I’m glad someone found it useful.

    I really think this whole Feminists v Trans Women thing is quite silly and wasteful. I don’t like either/or debates anyway – the world is much more complicated than that. But, as Julia Serano has brilliantly pointed out, must of the discrimination faced by trans women is a result of good, old-fashioned misogyny, and few people are more aware of just how far feminism still has to go than trans women, because they have seen both sides.

    Note that this is not to say that trans men have it easy – they don’t. But most of the hysteria about trans people in the media is actually hysteria about trans women.

  5. check ” the transexual empire : the making of she-male ” by Janice Raymond , 1979for one of the highlights of transphobic feminism.

    The book is a manifesto which contends that male-to-female transsexuals are part of a plot by men to infiltrate the women’s movement. Raymond maintains that transsexualism is based on the “patriarchal myths” of “male mothering,” and “making of woman according to man’s image.” Raymond is widely cited as one of the architects of transphobic, or anti-trans, feminism. She claims this is done in order “to colonize feminist identification, culture, politics and sexuality,” ( copied from the wikipedia website )

    and then you also have Sheilla Jeffreys. Her most recent book “Unpacking queer theory” is an attack on trans people, bdsm , queer theory etc…

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