Friday 26 October 2012

Trans identities and essentialism

Posted by OrlandoOrlando

“Gender is socially constructed.”

“Trans identities are real and valid.”

So. I’m a feminist and a trans person, and I believe both of the above statements. These two positions are sometimes held to be in opposition, whether by feminists who believe trans people are buying into patriarchal gender roles or trans people who denounce non-binary trans identities as ‘transtrenders’ (have a look at the ‘transtrender’ tag on Tumblr if you want to see examples - I’m not linking because some of the stuff on there is really hateful). In this post, I’d like to show how an understanding of gender as socially constructed and a recognition of trans identities are not mutually exclusive, starting with some analogies.

I’m a geek. Now, 'geek', really? But that’s... socially constructed! There is no immutable 'geek' identity that has lasted throughout the ages, so how can I say I’m one? 'Geek' as we understand it today is a product of a specific cultural moment and setting, formed in part by the popular emergence of fantasy and science fiction in the 1950s, the growth of the internet since the mid-1990s, and the development of a recognisable subculture. Of course it’s socially constructed: it’s a modern subculture. But it’s a recognisable thing, a thing that exists, a thing which it is possible to participate in the culture of and move through the world as.

I’m middle-class. This sure as hell is socially constructed! And I don’t just mean the stereotypes about my class background: buying every meal from M&S, violin lessons since age 7, living in a big house in the suburbs.* The entire class system is a massive fiction. It’s a deeply culturally-entrenched fiction: it’s been a force behind oppressions and revolutions and everyday prejudice and everyday preferences and is threaded inextricably through most people’s lives. It’s still ultimately a social construct. It’s nothing but a social construct: unless you’re a Victorian eugenicist talking about the innate criminality of the working class, there is nothing at an intrinsic level to separate someone who lives on a council estate from someone who owns a country estate. And yet it’s a tangible, powerful system of oppression that permeates our society.

You know what else is a social construct? Traffic lights. There is nothing natural, innate, or inevitable about red meaning 'stop' and green meaning 'go'. And you can point this out, and if you really want to then you could set up a home system using purple and yellow for when your living space gets a little crowded and you want people to move through it in an orderly fashion. But traffic lights such as they are will keep on existing in the rest of the world: ignoring a red light while out and about still has the same repercussions as always. Because traffic light colours are a social construct, and yes, you can decide for yourself that Things Need To Change, but that doesn’t stop them being a culturally- and legally- entrenched institution which the rest of the world around you believes in and operates on.

Sounding familiar yet?

Gender is socially constructed. Absolutely, definitely. The idea that having a physiology of the sort commonly described as ‘female’ means considering yourself to be a ‘woman’ means having a ‘feminine’ gender-expression means being submissive and nurturing ... is a tissue of constructions and assumptions.

But while I can see that being a 'geek' is a social construct, I can still look at myself and see that I possess the features of a geek, that I participate in geek culture, that this is a word that adequately describes me. I can see that the class system is a disgusting fraud perpetrated on the world, and still recognise that I have some of the privileges and values of a middle-class upbringing. I can see that traffic lights are an arbitrary semiotic system, but I still wouldn’t cross the road on a red light. It’s all socially constructed - but social constructs have tangible effects on the world.

So too with gender.

Critiquing gender in terms of how it operates as a system does not preclude having a gender identity. You can look at the world and go “hey, isn’t it fucked up that everyone has to choose between pink and blue?” and still think pink suits you better than green or yellow or any other colour.** Indeed, most of the people who would say “gender is a social construct, so trans people are deluded” are cis people. Cis people still have gender identities: while the term 'gender identity' tends to be associated only with trans people, few cis people will have a problem with whether to tick the M or F box on a form, or which gendered bathroom to use. Ultimately, trans people are not reifying the fiction of gender any more than anyone else is - the system goes far deeper than that, and permeates everyone’s experiences.

So. Being trans. If we’re not propping up the patriarchy with our gendered experiences, what is going on for us? Despite the fetishistic focus on genitals, hormones and surgery which pervade popular media representations of trans people, I find myself needing to explain the peculiarly bodily nature of trans-ness quite a lot, while also trying to qualify that it’s not always that simple. The term 'proprioception'- the feeling of what and where one’s body is - is used by Jay Prosser in Second Skins to discuss trans embodied experience: when someone’s proprioceptive sense of their sexed body is different from their body itself - when “what IS there is not what the self FEELS to be there”. In this sense, being trans isn’t about the system of gender - it’s about the relationship a person has with their body. Of course, it gets more complicated than that: there is more than one way to be trans. The system of gender constructs and enforces a strict alignment between genital configuation, body morphology, gender expression, and gender identity - any deviation from this can qualify someone as trans, should they choose to identify themself that way.

Let’s break this down.

You can be physiologically one sex and feel proprioceptively that you are another sex.
You can be assigned one gender at birth and feel the need to socially operate as another gender.

Both of these things come under the umbrella of ‘dysphoria’ - a deep-seated sense of ‘wrongness’. Many trans people feel both of these types of dysphoria - bodily and social. But someone does not need both of these to be trans. (Hell, someone doesn’t necessarily need either of these - non-binary genders can be even more complex.)

For example, traditionally the term ‘trans man’ means someone who is assigned female at birth, feels proprioceptively that he should have a flat chest and a penis rather than breasts and a vagina, and feels a need to socially operate as male. However, not all trans male identities necessarily encompass every aspect of ‘man’ as it is commonly understood. Someone with breasts and a vagina could feel proprioceptively the need for a flat chest and/or a penis, but still be comfortable socially operating as female. Someone who was assigned female at birth could want to socially operate as male, but not want a flat chest, or not want a penis, or not want either. Each of these people could easily describe themself as a trans man, despite the marked difference in how they experience dysphoria. That said, they could also identify as ‘genderqueer’ or ‘non-binary’*** - both umbrella terms that cover (and expressly acknowledge the existence of) an incredibly broad range of non-normative sexed and gendered understandings of self. As well as configurations like the above, such trans identities can include (but are not limited to): a proprioceptive sense of a body that is un-sexed, or simultaneously possesses characteristics sexuated as ‘male’ and as ‘female’, or that fluctuates between more than one sexed body type; the desire to socially operate as non-gendered, or to switch between ‘male’ and ‘female’, or to be perceived as a third gender; a gender expression that is neutral or ambiguous, or that is apparantly ‘binary’, or that is visibly both male/masculine and female/feminine; and so on.

Trans identities are complex and diverse and even seemingly ‘binary’ gender identities (trans man, trans woman) do not necessarily conform to cis-centric ideas of gender expression and sexed morphology, as we see above. Furthermore, the ways that body dysphoria is negotiated create an even wider array of trans experiences. Some trans people require medical interventions to feel comfortable with their sexed bodies; others become comfortable with their bodies by reframing them (for example, a trans woman might consider her natal genitals to comprise a large clitoris, or a penis that is female because it belongs to a woman); still others are content with their bodies and their trans-ness is to do with how they relate to other aspects of gender and self.

Human diversity: it’s amazing.

Back to where we started - this question of essentialism. “Gender is socially constructed” vs “trans identities are real and valid”. We’ve come here by a long and winding path, and now it’s time for a more succinct answer. While some trans identities relate to an essential (and individual) sense of self, recognising the validity of our identities is not essentialist - indeed, if anything, the immense variation and complexity of trans identities can help show how false and limiting the oppositional dichotomy of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ really is. Trans people catch a lot of flack for our genders: apparently trans women are spies of the patriarchy, trans men are sell-outs to it, and as a genderqueer person my feminism was called into question because I’m ‘fucking around with’ gender instead of dismantling it. As though this isn’t how we dismantle it - by exposing the gender system for the entrenched fiction it is. By revealing the complexity and diversity of sexed/gendered experiences. By expanding out from the pink and the blue until the world of sexed and gendered possibilities is lit up in iridescent rainbow.

So. I’m a feminist and a trans person, and I’m here to change the world.

Further reading:
Maranda Elizabeth - Genderqueer Killjoy
CN Lester - On being both transgender and transsexual
Natalie Reed - Bio-essentialism, social-constructivism, and what hormones do and don’t actually do
Stephen Whittle - Feminism and Trans Theory: Two Teams on the Same Side?
Talia Bettcher - Feminist Perspectives on Trans Issues
Julia Serano - Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman On Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity
Jay Prosser - Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality
Surya Monro - Gender Politics: Citizenship, Activism, and Sexual Diversity

* None of these are true about me, in case you’re wondering.
** In the much more lyrical words of Ruth Pearce: “I would tell you that yes, I agree that gender is a social construct that ascribes hegemonic power to the masculine. I would tell you that I, like you, am forced to negotiate a society where we cannot simply reject gender because we are gendered constantly by others. The body I inhabit, the things I enjoy, the manner in which I communicate, the clothes I prefer to wear fit better into the artificial category of “woman” than the artificial category of “man”.”
*** While both terms are used as umbrella categories, ‘non-binary’ seems to be replacing ‘genderqueer’ among my own circles - a term which I acknowledge as problematic.


  1. OMG Thank you so much for this, THis is exactly what I was trying to explain to a group of stubborn cis academics on Thurs evening at a reading circle whilst reading Butler's chapter 'Undiagnosing gender' from Undoing Gender. I think I managed to get through to some but not all but I'm gonna send a link to this to see if it helps... hopefully!

  2. what a piece of incoherent nincompoop!