Gender and Binary Thinking

This is the first actual book review I have written in a long time (the brief comments I post about books I have read on this blog don’t really count as reviews). You may well be asking yourself why I’m doing it. Well to start with the book in question is not a science fiction book, which removes a whole lot of baggage, but mainly I’m writing about it because this book packs an incredible amount of useful and thought-provoking material into a very small space. It is only around 150 pages long, with big type, and I’m worrying I might go on longer than that talking about it.

The book in question is Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer, by Riki Wilchins. I first came across the book via this review by Karen Burnham. Books on gender theory interest me anyway, but I was particularly struck by Karen’s comment that, “it helped me see how the theory I had always detested supports conclusions I already agreed with”. That theory happens to be PostModernism.

No, don’t run away screaming already. I know PoMo has a pretty bad rep amongst book readers and many reviewers, and with good reason. After all, PoMo encourages you to think about the assumptions behind everything you read, and behind your reactions to what you read. Many readers hate that, and complain bitterly about reviewers “reading things into books that aren’t there”. There is also a lamentable tendency amongst some people to use PoMo as an excuse for justifying faith-based approaches to science on the grounds that all facts are socially interpreted and can therefore be discarded. Finally, PoMo can be relentlessly negative at times. Its purpose, after all, is to encourage us to doubt, to tear things down, and unlike Hegelian dialectics it doesn’t have a synthesis phase to make us feel good about what we’ve just done.

On the other hand, years of writing reviews have pretty much convinced me that a PoMo approach is essential to the reviewer’s toolkit, if only because if helps you understand that everyone who reads the book will react to it in a different way, and you can’t talk to them effectively about the book unless you understand that. Obviously I’m not an academic with a grounding in literary theory or philosophy, so I can’t vouch for how accurately Wilchins explains PoMo. However, I can say that reading Wilchins is way easier that trying to read Derrida or Foucalt directly. Also Wilchins’ book has left me with a new understanding about how PoMo is essential to both literary criticism and politics, because PoMo is at heart about how language generates meaning, and both literature and politics are systems for influencing people through the use of language.

Notice that so far I haven’t said anything about gender. Wilchins’ book is worth reading just from the point of view of getting an understanding of what PostModernism is all about, and being able to use that understanding to become a better book reviewer. That however, is largely incidental to the book’s purpose. So here we go on the gender front.

I will, at some point during this review, end up needing to use pronouns to refer to Wilchins (I’m not as good a writer as Kelley Eskridge and I don’t trust myself to avoid pronoun use without creating awkward sentences). When I do so I will use “she” and “her”, because on the back of the cover of the book the word “she” is used with reference to the author. I am trusting that Wilchins approved that usage. However, Wilchins is the sort of person for whom gender is a much more fluid concept than can be contained in our current simplistic linguistic tools. English (I can’t vouch for any other language) allows for only two genders: male and female. What is more, it punishes deviance from that norm quite ruthlessly. As Wilchins notes:

Tellingly there is not a single word for people who don’t fit gender norms that is positive, affirming, and complimentary. There is not even a word that is neutral. Because all our language affords are strings of insults, it is impossible to talk about someone who is brave enough to rebel against gender stereotypes without ridiculing or humiliating them at the same time. Language works against you. It is meant to, because the language of gender is highly political.

So, there we have language and politics. We also have binaries because, as Wilchins explains when discussing Derrida, binaries are a natural consequence of naming. When we call something a “car” we automatically distinguish it from things that are “not car” (trains, aircraft, horses) and we automatically create a potential for disputes as to whether something is “really” a car or not (Smart, Reliant Robin). In many cases this doesn’t matter much. Jeremy Clarkson aside, no one much worries about whether a Smart or a Reliant Robin is sufficiently car-like to deserve the title, but parents whose little boy wants to wear pink and play with dolls are liable to take that child to a psychologist, and if that kid is unlikely he’ll fall into the hands of someone who believes he is “sick” and must be bullied and tortured until he is “cured’ of his lamentable feminine tendencies. For some people, the gender binary (or more specifically being on the wrong side of it) is a matter of life and death.

Gender, then, is a subject that is well suited to PostModernist analysis. And if you still think that might be stretching things a bit, consider this: the book, published in 2004, is uncannily prescient in foreshadowing pretty much everything that has happened in transgender politics in the USA since. This isn’t because Wilchins has a crystal ball; it is simply down to observing and understanding how the need to conform to socially-approved gender roles has affected queer politics down the years.

Back when I was a kid, gay men were generally assumed to be people like Quintin Crisp or Liberace (though Liberace, for all of his money and success, never felt safe enough to admit publicly to being gay); that is, gays were thought to be effeminate. These days if you ask someone to describe a gay man they’ll probably come up with a picture that is much more like Freddie Mercury, a far more macho image. The reason for this, Wilchins says, is because only by conforming to social norms of gender presentation were gays (and lesbians) able to gain the acceptance they needed for the political campaigns to be successful.

In parallel to this we see Barney Frank and his backers in the HRC willing to ditch support for trans people from legislation in Congress because they feel that only gender-conformant people have any chance of being granted rights. The fact that gender presentation is often used as an excuse to persecute gays and lesbians is brushed aside. The message from the LGB movement’s political leaders is, “we can win you rights, but only if you present yourselves as ‘normal’ males and females – anything beyond that is a step too far.”

And what has been the reaction in the trans community to this? Naturally a whole bunch of people have started to complain that once they have transitioned to their desired gender, they too are perfectly gender-conformant. Trans people would be perfectly OK in society if only they could ditch the weirdos, the people who don’t know what gender they want to be, or who don’t want anything to do with gender. If only they could ditch people like Riki Wilchins.

This is the point at which people ought to roll out the great Ben Franklin quote: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” But often that does no good, and Barney Frank for one is convinced that it is wrong. Society, it seems, is not ready for deconstructing gender. Wilchins thinks that is unfortunate, and so do I.

Of course one of the problems with being a PostModernist is that it is very easy to fall into exactly the sort of trap that you accuse others of being caught in. Everybody has their own blind spots, and you generally find those by looking at what is most important to people. Wilchins is pretty clearly a gender deconstructionist, and as such she (see, I knew I’d need a pronoun eventually) has probably been on the receiving end of a fair amount of prejudice from those trans people with a strong sense of gender identity and a highly conformant gender presentation. That’s entirely fair. What Wilchins doesn’t mention is that at the same time trans people who are gender-conformant have been ostracized by both LGB groups and feminists. In the former case it is because Senator Frank and his allies only see trans people as useful if they present as extremist weirdos compared to whom ordinary LGB folk look safe and normal. As for feminists, the whole existence of trans people threatens their own pet binary of biological sex. Most feminists are now very happy with women who are lesbians, or who present in a very masculine manner, but many of them recoil with horror from women who were assigned to the male gender at birth and were raised as boys. Surely, they say, those people are “really” men, no matter what they say about themselves, or how they now look and behave.

Wilchins also betrays personal bias when it comes to the subject of the social origins of gender. It is fashionable in some feminist circles to claim that all gender is culturally determined (or more radically that all gender is performance). By that definition, transsexuals cannot exist. Anyone who claims to “know” that their personal identity has a gender that doesn’t match their body must have been socially brainwashed in some way, and therefore can easily be brainwashed back. For a gender deconstructionist like Wilchins, who doesn’t have a strong sense of personal gender identity, and is happy to function in society as either a man or a woman, this is a very seductive idea, because it means that all trans people are “really” like them, and that any who claim otherwise are either brainwashed or liars. I’m pretty sure that intellectually Wilchins knows this is wrong. However, her heart is always pushing her to favor ideas that support the position. For example, she talks about how quickly and efficiently most children adopt traditional gender roles.

It’s possible to describe all this as “Nature’s way”, the inevitable effect of hormones and chromosomes. But this hardly seems a sufficient explanation. To explain a power this pervasive and robust, operating in private just as effectively as in public and producing subjects so uniform in how they look, act and dress, Foucault needs to give us something bigger – a better account of power, a bigger stick.

That stick, of course, is social pressure (which is why she’s talking about Foucault and discourse at the time). I think there is little doubt that society places very strong pressure on us to conform to traditional gender norms. We can see, for example, how powerfully fashion works as a force that governs how we present ourselves, and there is clearly no biological element to that. Besides, fashions change every year and out biology doesn’t. But if social pressures on gendered behavior are really all-powerful, how come there are people who resist them? And not just resist them, but do so at the cost of their jobs, their friends, their families and their health? Absent the corrupting influence of incompetent parents that psychologists keep trying and failing to find, transsexuals are subject to exactly the same social pressures as non-transsexuals, so why do they not succumb to them when it is so painfully obvious that it would be to their personal advantage to do so? To me the possibility that they cannot, because they are somehow biologically hardwired to resist such conditioning, seems eminently likely.

Note, by the way, that this does not mean that I think that all little girls (trans or otherwise) are biologically hardwired to grow up to be perfect little June Beavers, and all little boys (trans and otherwise) are biologically hardwired to grow up to be perfect Clint Eastwoods. We have a great deal of leeway in how we choose our styles of gender presentation and behavior, and much of that, I am sure, is socially conditioned. But I do not think that the persistence and determination of transsexuals, not to mention the remarkable success rate of the simple treatment of letting them live in their preferred gender, can be explained by a model of gender that is based solely on social conditioning. Society doesn’t create gender, no matter how much it may encourage conformance with gender roles.

These points, however, are fairly minor nits. For the most part Wilchins and I appear to be batting for the same team. I am particularly impressed by what the book has to say about identity politics.

There is little doubt that identity politics has done a lot of good over the years. It has helped us reduce the prevalence of racism, has helped all sorts of endangered cultures around the world, and has proved a cornerstone of movements to secure rights of diverse groups from women to gays to the disabled. However, as Wilchins notes, the idea does seem to be running out of steam. This is partly, I suspect, because it is way too easy for conservatives to characterize a struggle for equal rights as a struggle for “special rights”. Quite how it is a matter of wanting “special rights” for the transgendered to want to be allowed to have jobs, get married and be protected from murder is a mystery to me, but open any right-wing newspaper in the US these days and you’ll probably find that line being peddled. The evil trannies want special rights so that they can come into our bathrooms and rape our daughters; or something like that.

But more importantly, as Wilchins points out, the whole idea of identity politics promotes exclusion. If I am a member of a special group that is discriminated against, then clearly it is necessary for a huge number of people to not be part of that group. It comes back to language again. You are either “X” or “Not X”, and if you are “Not X” then you don’t have any right to be part of the movement or group that promotes X-ness. This applies just as much in science fiction fandom as it does in feminism, race politics or gender politics. Furthermore:

Identity politics has bequeathed us the unwieldy notion that exclusion is okay, but only if it is done by a minority group or one whose oppression ranks higher on the totem pole of pain. Thus a whites-only group is unacceptable, but a blacks-only one is not. A gay-but-not-transgender group is offensive, but a transgender-only one makes perfect sense.

And thus also a post-operative trans woman whose body is outwardly indistinguishable from other women can be denied access to a rape crisis center after she has been assaulted on the grounds that she is “really” a man and is therefore a threat to women.

Exclusion does, of course have its place. There is a point in keeping people with penises out of rape crisis centers. There is a point in members of minority cultures having private conferences in which they can talk about issues specific to their groups without having their discussion hijacked by wider concerns. But exclusion should not become a way of being. And of you take a look around the Internet today you will see person after person arguing a point by claiming that they are a member of a minority group that is being discriminated against. “It’s not fair!” has become the rallying cry of the blogosphere generation. In many cases, things are not fair, but at the same time just about everyone has learned that the easiest way to win an argument amongst a group of Liberals is to claw your way to the top of Wilchins’ totem pole of pain.

So exclusion has its place, but it can’t become the be-all-and-end-all of politics, because if it does we’ll all be locked into a downward spiral of ever-tightening definitions of who is oppressed and who isn’t. Everyone thinks that their personal oppression is really bad, because that’s human nature. Sometimes, however, you have to step back and realize that other people do have it worse than you. And equally, even if you have things really bad, you can’t just sit there and be resentful. Nor (queer community please note) can you continue to define your special interest in ever tighter terms, because in turning your back on supporters you feel are an embarrassment you also turning your back on potential allies and making yourself look bad to outsiders.

Perhaps most importantly, however, winning that political battle for equal rights does not necessarily win the war. Racism has been frowned upon by legal codes in the west for a long time, but has that stopped people being racist? The UK, and many other states, have stringent laws forbidding companies from denying people employment simply because they are gay, or transgendered, or old, or disabled, or likely to get pregnant. Does that stop such discrimination from taking place? No, it doesn’t, because unless attitudes in society change, there is no way to enforce such laws effectively. Heck, we can’t even enforce laws against rape effectively.

While I strongly disagree that society is responsible for creating gender, I am very much aware of how effective it is at enforcing it. The same is true of racism, sexism, ageism and so on. And identity politics does not challenge that, because instead of challenging the social divisions that give rise to such prejudices it reinforces them. People fear what is different, and if the whole basis of your politics is that you are different to others then you are setting them up to fear you. What Wilchins appears to want instead is a deconstructionist approach to such issues that tries to do away with differences rather than emphasize them. I can see a lot of sense in that.

The reaction to this in certain quarters is that I would say that. As a rich, white privileged individual of course I would want to deny other people the right to resist oppression. There’s not a lot of point in trying to counter such accusations. After all, I am very obviously white. And no matter how badly I think my life might have gone in places, I know all too well that if I had been born in Dafur rather than in England I would have had a much less happy and successful life (and probably a much shorter one too). All I can do is point out that, as a highly gender-non-conformant trans person, Wilchins is in a very small minority group, and yet she sees the need to do away with balkanized minorities and instead concentrate on what we have in common. I think she has a point, and I’d like people to at least consider it. Which is why I’m hoping that some of you will read her book.

Meanwhile I guess I have to go and read Judith Butler. It is something I have been leery of doing because of the way some feminists use Butler’s ideas as a stick with which to beat gender-conformant trans people. However, Wilchins has made an elegant plea for Butler being misunderstood, and I’m willing to follow up on that.

17 thoughts on “Gender and Binary Thinking

  1. Excellent review. I’m glad you picked this up and wrote about it. I know that you had much more history with this subject matter than I did, so I’m very glad to get your perspective on it. Thanks!

  2. Interesting review Cheryl 🙂

    Though I disagree with you about the conservative reaction to identity politics. Their response hasn’t been outright rejection of the tactic but rather adoption.

    See the talk of poor God believers having to protect themselves from the hateful bigoted NEW ATHEISTS. It taps quite nicely into one of their wider narratives, namely that Christians are persecuted souls who, despite the overwhelming forces against them have managed to completely dominate American politics for the last 30 years.

    Also interesting on TGs need for a concrete basis for gender, and the dislike for people with a more flexible approach to gender. I’ve mostly seen this in terms of outright homophobia because if some TG need there to be strict boundaries between the genders, they also need their relationships to be heterosexual. After all, straight women fancy men… if the guy they fancy also fancies guys and everything in between then it weakens the TG’s position vis a vis traditional gender roles and models of sexuality.

    I’ve always thought that it was an unwarranted step backwards. For example, the fact that gay rights are fought for from a position of people not being able to help it (thereby tapping into the narrative of the wider civil rights movement) whereas a more logical place to fight the battle is “who I sleep with and who I spend my life with is none of your damn business”. In terms of the argument, it tactically gives up the weaker but nonetheless defensible ground, thereby stranding people whose sexualities are more complex.

    I’ve always assumed that the TG rights movement arguing from a position of “we’re women/men and deserve to be treated as such” was a similar step back from the less easily defended position of “I’ll be who I want to be, fuck your gender stereotypes”, thereby stranding certain people who aren’t clearly transsexual or happy within their physical gender. But it does make more sense to think that actually the retrenchment isnt tactical but definitional.

    Great review, I’ve merely been dipping in and out of the book.

  3. Jonathan – thanks for the interesting comments.

    You are quite right about religious conservatives using identity politics themselves. Their usual line is that they are a persecuted minority and that other people are being allowed “special rights” in order to conduct that persecution. Interestingly that’s also the attitude taken by transphobic feminist groups.

    The issue with TGs and conformity is complicated by the fact that for many years the psychiatrists who have been the gate-keepers to the gender re-assignment process have required transsexuals to behave in a highly gender-stereotyped way in order to be eligible for treatment. I’m sure that people who have been through that have been affected by it.

    Of course there will be trans people who are homophobic, just like there are gays and lesbians who are transphobic. That’s human nature. But to understand what is actually going on you have to understand that not all trans people are the same, by a very long way. Some of them have a very strong sense of gender identity and want to swap genders on a permanent basis; other have a very weak sense of gender identity and are happy being either gender, or neither gender. Those two groups can get at loggerheads very easily.

    So, for example, I’m very comfortable with your idea of people simply being whatever gender they want to be. But that notion has been used by some people to require all trans people to behave in a way that is strongly non-stereotypical. See what I said above about gender-conformant trans people being excluded by gay and feminist groups. Equally, on a practical level, trans people who are gender-conformant will see their cause being held back by those whose gender expression is further from the social norm, which leads to the sort of exclusion that Wilchins complained about.

    Finally there is the whole question of how to deal with the issue of “choice”. This has bedeviled the whole queer community for as long as it has been in existence. On the one hand there are those who say that if sexuality, gender identity and so on are a choice, then it is a choice than can and should be un-made. On the other hand there are those who say that if these things are not a choice then by definition who exhibit them are sick. There’s no easy way around that problem.

  4. Thanks for the response Cheryl 🙂

    Yeah… it’s a minefield. It rather begs the question as to whether identity politics allow for a “moderate” position as any position that one does take seems to require pushing oneself up against others.

    “So nobody should feel constrained by gender stereotypes eh? well what if I WANT to be constrained by stereotypes?!”

  5. I think you are beginning to understand why Wilchins so dislikes identity politics. 🙂

    Though actually, only conservatives want to be constrained by stereotypes. (That, after all, is what being a conservative is all about.) I think the point is that just because one’s gender behavior happens to be stereotypical, that doesn’t mean that it is the result of you being forced to behave that way, nor do you have an obligation to stop doing so. People should have the right to adopt whatever gender expression they want, including behavior that is viewed as stereotypical.

  6. It’s been a while since I’ve read an IP-related book and this one sounds very interesting. I recall us having a brief conversation about this some weeks ago, Cheryl, and I might have to add this book to my purchase list in the near future, since gender roles/”transgressions” were part of my grad studies over a decade ago and this sparked a desire to read something akin to those books again.

  7. Hi Cheryl

    I am so glad that I came accross your review. I am shopping online for texts to read before I complete my final year of my Psychology degree. Modern Psychology degrees are aimed at both schools of thought regarding conforming and constructionist thinking thank goodness!

    I am fortunate enough to have been offered the course ”Gender and Psycholoy” which aims to offer arguments for and against the gender myths that surround us. Now that I have read your review, I think I will go back to Amazon and pop a copy of the book into the mail for myself.

    I am a lesbian and frequently face the same line up of questions regarding my identity; starting with ”do you mind if I ask you something…..”. I have 3 children from my 6 year dalliance of conformity and religiogendered normality phase in the 1990’s.

    Why is it though that folks can rationalise my transition (from gay-woman to straight-gay-woman to gay-woman) in such a way that is perfectly acceptable and not really questioned after I explain myself, yet the TG community has such a hard time, even amongst us so-called ”narnia” gays (Narnia gay is an ingroup tease for gays who are in and out of the closet) of being allowed to try and explain how you can be a pre-op (‘male’) lesbian?

    I say it all lies in the hands of male conservatives, brainwashing us from birth. They who need to keep reminding the world that the penis exists and wishes to rule the world. Hence the row over sexuality of the TG Community.

    As a psychologist, I know that sexuality originates within the brain during foetal development. Sexual behaviour and gender expressions originate in the brain but society attempts to strangle behaviour into these dichotomous patterns of gender.

    So, diversity will always have to wrangle with the debate of normality, ingroup politics will manage to maintian barriers and borders of conformity.

    At least we are privilidged to be able to have a voice and be able to talk about attitudes. We can climb the totem pole if we desire to and we can all work on keeping our campaigns current and heard.

  8. Sara – delighted that the review was of use to you. Feel free to stay in touch if it would help with your studies. The more academics who understand this stuff, the less likely it is that T people will have to put up with the nonsense that comes from the likes of Blanchard and Bailey.

  9. Hi Cheryl —

    I really enjoyed reading your essay (I will *not* diminish it by calling it a ‘blog entry’ “-}) Many parts of it stopped me and really made me think. I also appreciated your simultaneous sense of human and passion in approaching some very complex material.

    I don’t, BTW, think that everyone is, or should be, like me. Any kind of monolithic injunction — even mine — is still just another name for simply oppression. I have to admit, in regards to gender non-conformity, it is still so disfavored that I do think it’s more important to “run with the foxes rather than hunt with the hounds.” (Note to angry bloggers: This is a s-a-y-i-n-g, I’m am *not* trying to covertly imply that gender conforming folks are dogs.)

    As for Nature vs. nurture, I dont’ think it’s really particularly important . It’s an argument mobilized mostly for political reasons, to avlue some qualty or outcome over another. No on ever claims somethign is ‘nuture’ if they’re attempting to valorize it.

    Even if gender were entirely nuture and performance and totally a matter of simple aesthetic preference, so long as it was a binary system that was overly-simplistic and rigidly enforce, there wee still be many folks who would chafe against it and seek alternatives.

    SI really think you have the makings of a good book here. I hope you pursue that one day – I’d really enjoy reading it!

    Riki Wilchins

  10. Hi Riki – many thanks for dropping by.

    You are quite right that “nature v nurture” is usually an excuse to valorize someone’s position, but I’d be wary of being too complacent about it. The charge of being “unnatural” isn’t just flung against gender non-conformance, it has been used against the whole of the LGBT community, against women who want careers, as a marketing hook and (way back) against things like cars and aircraft. The idea that “natural” things are “good” and “unnatural” things are bad is deeply entrenched in the human psyche.

    Anyway, glad you like the post, thanks for the great book, and all power to the foxes.

  11. Hey Cheryl, I really enjoyed this book review, thank you. I am using the first quote that you pulled out for a paper that I am writing about how governmental forms are a way to delegitimize people (I would be happy to send you a link if you want to see it.) Anyway, my question is, I need to know a page number for that quote about how all our language affords are strings of insults, to do my works cited. Can you help?
    Cheers, Jean Helms

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