The controversy over Julie Burchill’s unpleasant headline-grabbing article on some ‘trans’-activists’ attacks on her mate Suzanne Moore rumbles on in the blogosphere, as the Observer promise to look into whether or not to have Burchill write future columns for them: http://liberalconspiracy.org/2013/01/13/libdem-mp-lynne-featherstone-says-julie-burchill-should-be-sacked/
I aim here to essay some philosophical and political reflections on this matter. My take on the controversy includes this: Burchill is Burchill. She is (and arguably always has been) a controversialist who lives off creating outrage. Her column was deliberately unpleasant; the Observer should have reined it in, or spiked it. But, leaving Burchill’s agent provocateur-ism to one side now: I have some sympathy with Suzanne Moore, Bea Campbell (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jan/31/julie-bindel-transgender-nus ), Julie Bindel and even Germaine Greer over this issue: The way they have at times been targeted and criticised is unpleasant. There IS a Feminist case against some of the discourse of the trans lobby. I hope that point doesn’t get lost in the anti-Burchill clamour.
Readers of this site will be aware that I am by no means an uncritical admirer of Julie Bindel: http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=2962 . And, as a Feminist-identified man, my own taste in Feminism is different in some important respects to that of the above-named group: I generally favour a Radical Feminism attuned closely to the critiques of ‘essentialism’ that Jane Flax, Nancy Fraser and others pioneered.
BUT to be a critic of gender essentialism is one thing; to seek to dissolve the category of ‘woman’ altogether, in favour of a sort of ‘opt-in’ version of what it is to be a woman, quite another. As Richard Rorty used to argue: ‘woman’ is an experiential category and a political category. It has, I would submit (and here I am simply echoing mainstream Feminist ideas) a material basis in lived experience including bodily experience, and it has a political reality and a political point. As both Rorty and Carol Gilligan rightly hold: so long as there is patriarchy, so long as there is oppression of women, then there is likely to be a ‘different voice’, there is certainly a need for Feminism: and Feminism starts with women being allowed to define themselves and to carve out spaces for themselves.
Trans women will say that they are exactly that: women being allowed to define themselves. But you can see the impasse here: If women find themselves being told by some with male genitalia etc. that they are obliged to accept the latter as women, because they ‘define’ themselves as so, that is hardly a knock-down argument. Take an analogy: Imagine that some people regard themselves within themselves as disabled, as missing a limb. Are disabled people obliged to regard those people as already part of the disabled community? I would suggest: obviously not. (And note: this is NOT even a philosopher’s made-up example. Tragically, there are people who want to have one or more limbs amputated, who want to become disabled: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/neurophilosophy/2012/may/30/1 )
The identity of the group of women starts from clear cases. The existence of grey areas does nothing to challenge this. (For detailed argument to this conclusion, through a broadly-Wittgensteinian discussion of the sorites and vagueness, see Chapter 6 of my new book, discussed here: http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=6272 ). It is not reasonable, it is not feasible, for those wanting entry to any group to act as if they have already magically gained such entry just by virtue of wanting entry. I will discuss this point in more detail, below.
So: Burchill has almost certainly done Moore et al a disservice. But the questions that Bindel, Moore et al have raised about the relationship of trans-sexualism to Feminism / to women remain genuine questions – they shouldn’t be tarred with Burchill’s brush. The point of MY intervention is just to seek to help ensure that we don’t miss the nuances of this difficult debate between Bindel & Moore & some other Feminists on the one hand and some trans-activists on the other, in the hurly-burly of this ‘political panic’ of attacks on Burchill for her attacks on transgender people.
So, two important points:
1) That there is a genuine, complicated question within Feminism about whether trans-women can or should in every or all respects be regarded straightforwardly as women (They don’t have periods, they don’t experience menopause; they chose to be (to become) women rather than having been brought up gendered female; etc. etc). It is complicated. Does feeling psychologically as if you are a woman and making certain changes to your body as a consequence make you a woman? Or first, a more basic question: Is it enough, in order to BE a woman, to psychically identify as one? To this second question, we must surely answer: no. (It it were, then it would presumably be enough to be disabled to psychically identify as disabled; it would be enough to be black to psychically identify as black; etc.)
At this point, it may be helpful to introduce another element to the discussion. To use the term that has in the course of this spat made the journey from academia to the blogosphere, identities are intersectional: many aspects make up our identities and this is what intersectionality as an approach tries to emphasise. One’s social class, one’s gender, one’s sexuality, one’s ethnicity, one’s political and moral commitments all intersect in such a way as to create one’s identity. Talking of intersectionality, as some already have, should alert us to the different intersecting identities that a trans-woman and non-trans-woman have, and therefore guard against endless arguments over real identity.
Are the trans-activists who pushed Moore off Twitter saying that women have no right to a say on who gets to be a woman?? Or again: Should non-trans-women similarly have the absolute right to define once and for all the term woman?? We should see that our identities are complexes of many different intersecting aspects, and recognise that just as these bring us close to those who share similar aspects they might also distance us from others, including the very people whose identity we might wish to share.
And this means that, as well as a symmetry, there is an asymmetry here: Women do not have an absolute once and for all right to define who they are. But they are do have more of a say than others as to who they are (and who they are not / who are not they), right now. Our individualist age would be taking a step into utter absurdity, if it were to say that any individual by virtue of feeling a certain way can magic themselves into any group-identity.
Do the mass of women who did not go through the process of sex-reassignment — ordinary women, so-called ‘cissexuals’ — have no right to point out some differences between themselves and trans-women? I think they surely do have such a right, including the right to point to a broad mass of broadly (albeit not universally) shared, overlapping experiences that they tend to share. Hopefully, they will have the heart to recognise the difficulties specific to the trans experience, and the feeling of commonality that the transsexual has with women. But hopefully too, those gendered male who wish to transition to female-hood will recognise that they are seeking to join a group with specific experiences some of which they have not shared, a historically-oppressed group, a group which has fought hard for the right to have spaces where women can organise together, clear of the male gaze, etc. .
It is not essentialist to point out the difference between being gendered female one’s who life and being gendered female as a result of a choice. It is not essentialist to point out certain material differences between men and women: the only question is what SIGNFICANCE to attribute to those differences. (Feminism of course argues that patriarchal societies tend to attach a wrong and excessive significance to those differences.) Does a man choosing to seek to become a member of an oppressed group (women) have the right to demand full unequivocal membership of that group and then speak as part of it without any possibility of objection? It is complicated, but it is at the very least not at all self-evident that one ought to answer that question with a Yes.
(2) While Burchill is an unpleasant controversialist who tries to create outrage, and while nothing that I write here should be interpreted as a defence of what SHE has said, there has also without doubt been some real and I think in part quite unwarranted unpleasantness from one very vocal section of the trans community against anyone, including some prominent Feminists, who dares to say out loud anything resembling (1).
Now, some trans-activists would say that what I have just written is in any case misleading, in that it makes being a transgender seem a ‘choice’ like any other, when the lived experience of trans people is that they have no choice about their gender-identification being opposite to the sexual identity they are assigned on the basis of their biology. Saying that there is no choice about making the trans-ition is, however, misleading: i) It suggests a new essentialism, which Foucaultians and some Queer Theorists would object to; it suggests that psyche is destiny (that if you are ‘a woman in a man’s body’ then you are really a woman) and, ironically, leaves no room for human experimentation or novel self-definition (i.e. for the flexibility of being able to resist society’s binarism, the insistence that you are either a man or a woman — trans-women insist on the latter, for themselves –, by creating genuinely new sexual identities); ii) It cannot make sense of the experience of another important minority that tends to get ignored in these debates: those who feel profoundly ill at ease in their bodies gender-wise and yet do NOT choose to seek to pass as women, do NOT undergo sex-reassignment surgery, etc.
The issue that concerns Bindel etc, is whether it is good and practical Feminist politics to completely unqualifiedly open the ranks of women to some former men. I am nervous about men or trans-women insisting that it goes without saying that it IS.
When I made some brief remarks similar to the above on Facebook recently, I was accused of bordering on gender essentialism. I would point out in this connection that it is ironic to be accused of borderline gender essentialism, when what the Trans activists in question are in some cases arguing for is the right to be taken for a woman with no questions asked ONCE SEX RE-ASSIGNMENT SURGERY ETC HAS HAPPENED. For surely no-one seriously claims that simply feeling like a woman is enough to make one one, for the reasons I gave above; but it appears that the hardline Trans position is that having the surgery etc certainly IS. But: that amounts to believing that anatomy is identity / destiny – but that you can change your anatomy, and so change your identity / destiny. This is pretty clearly a neo-essentialism, it seems to me.
Notice furthermore that there is something deeply and viciously paradoxical about the idea that simply feeling like a woman is enough to make one one. For what is it that one feels like, if one feels like a woman? It can’t be that the feeling of feeling like a woman is in and of itself a complete, self-validating, ‘private’ experience, of an individual (to see why not, Wittgenstein’s anti-private-language considerations are helpful); the experience must have some content. Obviously, what the content of the experience is, and necessarily so, is: feeling like one of ‘those’. Like one of those humans who has a body of a certain kind/shape, who perhaps dresses in certain ways, etc. (Thus some Feminists are understandably nervous that some trans-women may identify women by reference to an ideal of femininity that Feminism itself, rightly, puts into question). In other words, feeling like a woman / feeling like one is a woman is necessarily defined by reference to the pre-existing class of women. This point makes it clear that trans-women are dependent on the pre-existing category of women – on (ordinary) women, in other words. In simple terms: Being a trans-woman is necessarily in part based on the idea of being someone who in some sense on at present is not. This already guarantees that the feeling that one is one of them – a woman – is not sufficient. Because such an identity-claim is precisely a claim that goes beyond / differs from what one currently is. (It is, as we might put it, a desire-claim concerning oneself, as much as an identity-claim.) And such a claim is logically dependent on the pre-existence of the group that one identifies with. It is that pre-existence that underlies the asymmetry I pointed up, above.
Now, what I am saying might be countered by saying this: Surely the ideal of feminism would be that gender identity is irrelevant when it comes to the rights, opportunities and roles available to a person? In that case, denying trans women ‘full’ womanhood is illogical, as doing so uses gender as a basis for discrimination. This may not be an ideal world but the only way to move towards one, it might be argued, is to remain true to such ideals.
In reply, I would say this: Yes, that certainly is the ideal of much feminism – but it remains an UNREALIZED ideal. Until it is realised, it is premature to criticise Feminists for retaining the category of ‘woman’. If women want all/only-women spaces, etc., then, in a still-patriarchal society, they should certainly be allowed to create them. It is not true that to move toward an ideal world we have to pretend that we are already in one.
The picture is of course in reality even more complex, however, than I have so far allowed. Trans-women typically cannot actually get the surgery they want until they have been living as a woman for years. The most common process is for a trans woman to “come out” as trans and start to live as a woman long before they have surgery, if they even have surgery at all. Many don’t ever have the surgery for various reasons, including because it comes with a great many complications and the results are not always satisfactory. While there are of course different positions the general trans position is that surgery is just one part of a greater process, and, some would say, not necessarily even an essential or the most important part.
Recognising this complexity however creates only additional difficulties for the simplistic case made by some trans-activists. It creates, to be precise, a dilemma for them. Either one says that only post-op trans-sexuals should have a right to be treated as women without question: in which case, as implied earlier, it appears to be the trans-activist who is being essentialist, by attributing gender identity to anatomy (plus hormones etc), and merely adding that anatomy is malleable. Such a position puts a stark dividing line within the trans-community between pre-op (or non-op) on the one hand and post-op on the other. Or one says that all self-identifying women (i.e. pre-op trans-sexuals too) should have a right to be treated as women without question: in which case, it really must be asked, do you really not see ANY good argument for women to exclude from women-only spaces people who have male genitalia, etc? Can you really not see how some women might find it problematic to be told that they simply must let such people in on equal terms?
To move towards conclusion: A key problem for both sides in this debate is not having truly taken on board the point that identity is not a simple but a complex; hence they both end up arguing over something which is merely one aspect of the complex and by extension they commit themselves to the very essentialism they all argue they are against.
I think the real culprit here may then be a profound – a hyper- — individualism in our society, a kind of psychical consumerism of identity-politics that makes it seem as though any claim to identity is self-validating and must be accepted, and a wearing of victimhood as a badge such that one’s victimhood is supposed to prevent any criticism of one’s psychologically-based claims to identity. In tandem with this, ironically, lies a deep-set and enduring power of essentialist gender stereotypes and of biologism; a deep-set cultural assumption that one’s body ought to reflect gender stereotypes and ought to take on one of two supposedly-biologically-pre-set formations.
I will never rest until all oppression is ended. But the oppressed (and of course that is virtually all of us, in one way or another) must also seek to step out of the victim-role; to boldly fight for themselves, and to work in coalition to make this world a place where all of us can and will flourish; rather than to seek to vie as to who is more oppressed.
In this context, is it too much to hope, to hope that a little reflective philosophy such as I have essayed here may shed a little light on the matter? That tempers might calm enough to think things through as I have sought to do here? I hope not…
For, unlike Julie Burchill, I have the greatest of sympathy for trans-sexuals, a small minority who remain deeply misunderstood today, and who are probably in very many cases worse oppressed than many (non-trans) women. I hope that our society grows in its acceptance of such complicated sexual identities. I reject transphobia completely and out of hand.
But: I think that Feminists have a right to point out that there can in some cases be a prima facie tension between the desire to become a woman and the full recognition of the still-often-stark oppression of women, much of the time, in much of the world. And, more important (because more pressing): it is just plain wrong for any victim-group to use its victim-status as a tool with which to beat other victims of oppression. Whenever a trans-activist bullies a Feminist (or of course, equally, vice versa), Feminism dies a little – and trans-women need Feminism badly. Because, if they don’t know all there is to know about the oppression of women before they become one, I am reliably informed (by a transsexual acquaintance) that they often get to know a lot more about it afterward…
[Thanks to those who gave me comments on an earlier version of this piece. Please note that, in this piece, I am, obviously, discussing only male-to-female transsexualism. That’s complicated enough, without also addressing the reverse case, let alone hermaphroditism, etc.]