Sex / Gender / Politics
By E. John Winner
1953 saw the release one of the worst films ever made – Glen or Glenda, written and directed by the master of bad cinema, Ed Wood. Promising to be an exploitation film about the then new transsexual surgery conducted in Sweden, it is really a boldly auto-biographical revelation of Wood’s own transvestism. (1)
As badly made as it is, the film is important, because in the confusion of its subject matter (and in the confusions of its protagonist/ director) it makes concrete a distinction between the transsexual and the transgender and also, because in its own inept way, it reveals the real pain that people suffering such identity confusion have long experienced in this culture. (Wood, sadly, eventually drank himself to death.)
How can a film so bad nonetheless score such crucial points? That’s an aesthetic issue. For now, let us give Wood his due and admit that he put his finger directly on a real problem: Transgender identification and transsexualism cannot be equated. The suffering of each is no doubt real, but they are not the same, and confusing the two may do more harm than good, politically and perhaps psychologically as well.
Do our genes determine our social identity?
Thinking about this question, I was reminded of two books – almost forgotten today, but each in its way important at the time of publication.
The first is The Dialectic of Sex, by Shulamith Firestone, described briefly by the Wiki article on Firestone:
“In The Dialectic of Sex, Firestone synthesized the ideas of Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, and Simone de Beauvoir into a radical feminist theory of politics.” (2)
But it was more radical than the listed influences suggest, because Firestone had what we would now call a “transhumanist” faith in the capacity of our new technologies to alter human evolution. The cybernetic future, Firestone imagines, will eliminate the necessity for work, the problems of poverty, and the desire for national identities. It also will eliminate the need for sexual reproduction.
The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least the option of) artificial reproduction: children would be born to both sexes equally, or independently of either, however one chooses to look at it; the dependence of the child on the mother (and vice versa) would give way to a greatly shortened dependence on a small group of others in general (…). (3)
It is going little further along these lines of thought to envisioning a world where we can choose our own sexual identity, not through surgery and hormonal supplements, but through the manipulation of our genes. We are already on the borders of choosing the sex of our children, according to some.
The other book that came to mind was John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, the report of a white journalist who traveled the South after having his skin treated medically to assume the color of a black man. (4) The important lesson of his book is that color alone has such a profound cultural effect on social responses that the deeper biological issues are rendered essentially irrelevant.
The criterion is nothing but the color of skin. My experience proved that. [Whites] judged me by no other quality. My skin was dark. That was sufficient reason for them to deny me those rights and freedoms without which life loses its significance and becomes a matter of little more than animal survival.” (5)
This certainly seems to validate group identity with socialization, not “natural born” attributes, and that’s important. Is there any genetic component to such identities, or are they merely a matter a happenstance and circumstance?
Whoever asked to be “born this way”? (The “way” being any way one chooses to consider.) And are we really “trapped” in it? Very murky waters.
But let’s consider New York Times columnist and prominent feminist Elinor Burkett’s response – largely negative – to the recent popularization of post-op transsexual Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Olympic gold-medalist Bruce Jenner):
I have fought for many of my 68 years against efforts to put women — our brains, our hearts, our bodies, even our moods — into tidy boxes, to reduce us to hoary stereotypes. Suddenly, I find that many of the people I think of as being on my side — people who proudly call themselves progressive and fervently support the human need for self-determination — are buying into the notion that minor differences in male and female brains lead to major forks in the road and that some sort of gendered destiny is encoded in us. That’s the kind of nonsense that was used to repress women for centuries. But the desire to support people like Ms. Jenner and their journey toward their truest selves has strangely and unwittingly brought it back. (6)
The undertone, not far from the surface of her text, is anger bordering on outrage. Why? Burkett’s point is that Jenner has had an opportunity granted exactly because, as male, Jenner enjoyed privilege most women are denied. Jenner’s opportunity to appear female on the cover of Vanity Fair, in a stereotypical pose that the corporate media has constructed for starlets and models, arises from Jenner’s history of having been male.
A side issue worth noting here: surgical construction of vaginas in trans-males has proven very successful and relatively routine. Phalloplasty, on the other hand, requires extensive re-surgery addressing almost inevitable complications, and prosthetic implants to mimic erection. 25% result in long-term serious complications. It’s almost as if the physiology has been arranged to permit greater opportunity to trans-males than trans-females. Even the surgical effort to provide such opportunity seems weighted in favor of men. (7) I mention this, because although it happens by chance through evolution of the species interacting with an imperfect surgical technology, it does – seemingly – shade the issue in favor of Burkett’s way of seeing the issue.
Suppose Bruce Jenner had never expressed an interest in being a woman? Suppose he simply said, “Well, I really want to look like that model on the cover of Cosmopolitan. I feel I was born to have big breasts, painted nails and dolls to play with. Oh, and throw in a vagina for good measure, I just hate standing up to pee.” Would we be sympathetic?
Consider those dolls. Feminists have long insisted that gender differences in child’s play are largely, if not wholly, the effect of nurture . Why shouldn’t girls play with toy fire-trucks or boys with dolls? So, if a boy expresses the desire to play with dolls, could this really be an expression of having been born “female in a male body”? Or it’s just wanting to play with dolls, but given the surrounding culture, the child grows up convinced that this means he should be female?
Hence, the murkiness of the issue. For the sake of decency and compassion, we want the matter to be clean and decisive, but it’s not. And Burkett is quite right to raise the issue, whether trans activists, by re-affirming stereotypes about sex and gender, maybe setting back the cause of justice for women.
Finally, it must be admitted that there is no united front in the effort to achieve sexual and gender rights, the current, momentary “intersectional” trend notwithstanding. The pretense there is may be politically useful, but risks misunderstandings at every turn.
Biologically, the difference between female and male reduces to genetics – XX and XY – and there is no escaping that. We can change the physiognomy but that doesn’t change the genetics.
There may be genetic factors that we don’t understand yet, but are there genetic factors that lead certain males to want to adopt the cultural signifiers of the (socially determined classification) “woman” and certain females to adopt those of “men”? Such a claim could only be made if we accept some evolutionary impetus for this, as we find in the primary tenets of Sociobiology or Evolutionary Psychology, but such tenets include the presumption that gender arises from evolutionary needs for sexual selection, and transsexuals are not reproductive.
Is there really some genetic component to the desire to play with dolls? Do we really want to go down that path?
No one is saying that a person should not pursue his/her desires or beliefs. But to insist on a biological component every time someone gets a bee in their bonnet about wanting to change themselves or the world to bend to those beliefs/desires is simply fatuous.
Does this have anything to do with sexual preferences as having a possible genetic component? I don’t know. Frankly, I’m not sure it matters. The insistence that sexual preference had genetic components was rhetorically useful at some point, since it was clear (and remains so) that there is little recourse for change in preference, whether genetically originated or no. But I hope we are beyond that, or should be.
This indirectly leads to a question that needs to be raised, even if so touchy, it is rarely (ever?) brought up in public discourse on such issues. As posed on the cover of Vanity Fair, Caitlyn Jenner’s semiosis promises viewers of the pose of sexual desirability as a woman. So, the question is fair to ask of viewers, defenders and protestors alike, “Would you have sex with this woman?” And a correlate question then must also be asked: “Would you have had sex with Jenner as a man?” Finally, let’s extrapolate those questions further – “Would you consider marriage with Jenner now? Would you have considered marriage with Jenner then?” These questions, to be meaningful, should be asked of male viewers of the image. Female answers to the questions would be interesting, but have limited value, since the pose indicates that Jenner is clearly appealing to male audiences.
Is sexual attraction a matter of gender? Is romantic love?
What we know as engendered “romantic love” has a history. It originated in the early Renaissance, not existing in the West previously, although a similar cultural phenomenon can be found in India, China, and Japan of the same era.
Murky waters, indeed.
What could it possibly mean for someone, born with a penis, to claim, “I feel I should have a vagina”? Because that’s the bottom line, that a male “should have” been born female (or vice-versa). Notice that in order for this to be persuasive, the person in possession of the penis would have to know it feels like to have a vagina (or, again, vice-versa), despite never having had one, something that I would maintain is beyond comprehension.
I’m not a backward thinker. I have long supported gay/lesbian rights and advocated justice for those who feel the need to adopt differing gender signifiers in their behaviors. But justice does not demand that I put my brain on hold. The only thing we know of the opposite sex is gender, and gender is a social construct. Otherwise, we need to assume that even without having lived in such a body, the physical sensations of the opposite sex can be experienced sufficiently that a person could recognize the need to live in it.
As I write that, I’m aware that it verges on the incoherent. Transgender activists are rhetorically relying on American embarrassment over discussing any sexual issue in depth, to put forward a claim with no recognizable ontological, epistemological, biological, or even psychological foundation. This is exactly the wrong path for the transgender community to take, in attempting to define the rights that justice demands for them.
The question is whether transgender identification (a social-psychological phenomenon) translates into transsexual identification (which would be a physiological-neurological phenomenon), and without better evidence and arguments than we have had so far, I don’t see how it could. I emphasize the genitalia, because a truly transsexual identification would seem to hinge on the ability of a person to know, or at least have a very good idea, what it would actually be like to have the genitalia of the opposite sex.
There are important historical issues to keep in mind here. First, transgender identification has been around as long as cultural records can reach, in every culture that has kept records on such matters. There is no arguing that we are dealing with a very real phenomenon, and so arguing for the rights of those who identify as transgender is no great leap of conscience.
However, the move towards transsexual identification is a more recent phenomenon and hinges on the odd conjunction of three apposite trends in the 20th century – the inherited legacy of equating gender and sex, which was widely distributed through common culture, making the distinction between the two a point of argument; the development of medical technology that allowed genital reconstruction and hormonal realignment; and certain theories in genetics that seemed to promise that not only sex but gender identification could be found to be genetically pre-determined. (Again, an important backdrop to all of this has been the long-standing American embarrassment over any public discussion of sexual matters.) The efforts to derive sound arguments and a coherent understanding of transsexualism from these intersections have largely failed, I think, and so the demand for its legitimation reduces to clamor about feelings and social conflicts that are more easily resolved when redirected back toward the rights of transgender individuals. In other words, the transsexual arguments over-complicate the discussion, and not, I suggest, to the benefit of the individuals involved – except of course when they can gather enough social pressure on certain institutions and people of influence to make themselves annoying. But while that may win some small gains, I suggest it does them no good in the long run, since it only means that the real issues involved remain unaddressed.
I can well imagine arguing, politically or before the law, for the right of self-determination for those who feel, however impelled, a need to adopt the accoutrements and behavior of the opposite gender. I can’t quite imagine arguing on behalf of someone who, born with a penis, claims that he ought to have a vagina (or vice-versa), since there is no way for that person to know what that be like without having said genitals.
But let’s consider this in relation to a similar, possibly related, phenomenon:
Body integrity identity disorder (BIID, also referred to as amputee identity disorder) is a psychological disorder in which an otherwise healthy individual feels that they are meant to be disabled. (….) BIID is typically accompanied by the desire to amputate one or more healthy limbs. It also includes the desire for other forms of disability, as in the case of a woman who intentionally blinded herself. BIID can be associated with apotemnophilia, sexual arousal based on the image of one’s self as an amputee. The cause of BIID is unknown. One hypothesis states that it results from a neurological failing of the brain’s inner body mapping function (located in the right parietal lobe) to incorporate the affected limb in its understanding of the body’s physical form. (8)
BIID is considered a disorder because it causes unhappiness and may lead to self-mutilation. It also appears to involve a neurological dysfunction, although the research is incomplete. As a disorder, it is one surgeons appear unwilling to cater to. It is not entirely clear why surgeons became willing to cater to transsexualism, given that it may be a related disorder. (Of course, trans activists claim that it isn’t a disorder at all.)
Let us imagine a case of BIID, wherein the afflicted person claims not only that, say, his right leg is not his own, but that the right leg of a certain woman belongs to him. Should we try to convince her to surrender her leg via transplant? Well, obviously that’s not what transsexuals are arguing. They are not laying claim to a specific person’s genitalia, but to another person’s type of genitalia. So, less extremely, should we do cosmetic surgery on a man’s leg so that it appears in every way like the leg of a woman he desires? Doing so may resolve the man’s unhappiness, but accompanying issues may still cause him problems.
But transsexuals aren’t simply expressing the feeling that their genitals-of-birth are somehow inappropriate. They are claiming that the genitals of the opposite sex are specifically appropriate to them. This is where things falls apart. How could they possibly know that? Genitals are not just attractive things dangling in theoretical space; they are rich and complex and possessed of a host of sensations and physiological responses. And one must know these sensations and responses – not simply imagine them – in order to claim the right of possession. A woman claims she should have a penis instead of her vagina. Which penis? the blood-engorged erect penis in copulation? The shriveled penis, in the chilling wind? The irritated penis, feeling pressure from the bladder to urinate? The one accidentally caught in a hastily closed zipper?
We don’t know if there might be some genetic causality to BIID. But let’s allow the claim that there is some for gender identification. That only means that gender identity is a predisposition towards adopting certain socially constructed behaviors. It is not a determination of sexual being – that determination is given over to the XX and XY chromosomes. And the genetics of that are quite clear.
The medical technology of cosmetic surgery is a luxury. It can be used to alleviate psychic pain in certain cases, but it neither arises from, nor generates, any rights.
Am I arguing that transsexualism is a disorder? I don’t know. Am I suggesting that it is a form of surgically assisted self-mutilation? That’s my suspicion But set that aside, since self-mutilation (within limits) has long been acceptable as a way of enhancing one’s appearance (think piercings and tattoos). However, that’s where the present inquiry concludes: transsexualism is not a genetic imperative, but a form of appearance enhancement, no matter how urgent the desire for it. Cosmetic surgery. And the final question, politically, is this: Should we expend political energy and capital to determine and enforce alleged rights of the cosmetically enhanced? And to what extent?
- IMDB entry: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0045826/
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shulamith_Firestone (paraphrasing Jennifer Rich).
See also Gordon Cornwall’s fascinating discussion at: http://phantomself.org/amputation-desire-biidxenomelia-and-the-human-experience-of-self/