Wednesday, January 14, 2015
Nobody reinforces the gender binary & nobody subverts it either (plus some retrospective thoughts about Whipping Girl)
I usually don’t publicly respond to critiques of my writings. People inevitably interpret (or misinterpret) things that I have written in all sorts of ways, and I usually just strive to articulate my ideas better the next time around. However, in the last two weeks, I have stumbled across numerous instances where people have accused me of claiming that two-spirit and other indigenous non-binary-identified people “reinforce the gender binary.” This notion so goes against everything that I believe and have written in the past that I feel compelled to address the matter here.
I am not 100% sure how this meme got started, but I get the impression that it may have originally stemmed from this blog post by b-binaohan, which is a critique of a chapter of Whipping Girl wherein I critique the notion (which was quite prevalent within academia a decade ago when I was writing the book) that transsexuals “reinforce” the gender binary. As I argue throughout Whipping Girl and Excluded, as well as here and here and here and here, I am strongly opposed to the notion that any gender or sexual identity is more radical or conservative than any other, or that some “reinforce” the gender binary while others “subvert” it. What we think of as “the gender binary” is driven by non-consensually projecting gendered expectations, assumptions, and meanings onto other people (i.e., gender entitlement), not by self-identifying or expressing our genders or sexualities in particular ways. The “reinforcing” trope is merely an attempt by some to establish yet another gender hierarchy—in Whipping Girl I refer to this hierarchy as the “radical/conservative binary” or as subversivism, where supposedly transgressive/radical genders are deemed “good” and supposedly reinforcing/conservative genders are deemed “bad.” I go on to say that we should be working to put an end to all gender hierarchies rather than creating new ones.
Anyway, during the aforementioned chapter of Whipping Girl, I critique certain claims made by anthropologists Will Roscoe and Serena Nanda, both of whom have argued that “third gender”* categories in other cultures subvert the gender binary, whereas transsexuals reinforce the binary. I chose to critique their work for the express purpose of challenging the overly simplistic radical/conservative binary that these (and countless other) academics were forwarding (and which was routinely used to undermine transsexual people). I was not in anyway attempting to comment or pass judgment upon indigenous cultures or gender identities—I was merely critiquing Nanda’s and Roscoe’s interpretations of those cultures and identities in relation to their views of transsexuality. In retrospect, I can see how by engaging in these anthropologists’ theories (as a white/Western person myself), I may have unknowingly/unthinkingly contributed to the systematic erasure that indigenous people have historically faced in academia and anthropological research. This is a point that b-binaohan makes, and it is a fair one—I regret my part in, and accept responsibility for, that.
Having said that, I never once in my critique of Nanda and Roscoe’s theories claimed or insinuated that indigenous non-binary gender identities “reinforce” the gender binary (as some comments I've seen on the Internet suggest)—as I have said repeatedly, I do not believe that *any* gender identities “reinforce” the gender binary). Nor did I state or insinuate that transsexual gender identities are more “natural” or “transgressive” or “oppressed” than indigenous gender identities or other non-binary gender identities. Whipping Girl is centered on transsexuality, not because I believe that it is the most important gender variant identity or experience, but rather because ten years ago when I was writing the book, transsexuals were viewed as one of the most suspect gender variant subgroups within feminist, queer, and academic discourses (as hard as that may be to believe today). At that time, and in those settings, genderqueer, drag, and other non-binary identities were often praised, whereas transsexuals who unapologetically identified as either women or men were routinely dismissed. This isn’t me playing the “more oppressed than thou” card—it was simply the zeitgeist of the time, and it is evident in many queer theory and transgender-themed books of that era.
Nowadays, during this very different time period when (unfortunately) most of the progress made by the “transgender movement” has seemed to benefit people of transsexual experience, I recognize that my focusing on redeeming transsexuality may seem to some like yet another example of a transsexual taking up too much space and pushing aside non-binary identities. But that was not my intention way back then; I was simply trying to create space for respectful consideration of transsexuals within activist and academic conversations, not to bring down other gender variant identities in the process.
Whipping Girl is a very particular book. In it, I focused primarily on challenging societal critiques of 1) transsexuals, 2) trans women, and 3) people who are feminine, as I found that these three aspects of my own person were rarely defended at the time, even (and in some cases, especially) within feminist, queer, and certain transgender circles. It is also a very personal book, full of my own stories and anecdotes (which of course, stem from me being socially situated as a white, middle class, able-bodied, “generation X,” out, queer-identified transsexual woman living in a U.S. urban area). I never imagined that the book would gain the notoriety that it has, or that it would be taught in classrooms, or that it would be considered to be an authoritative or definitive “transgender book.” As a “transgender book” (in a general sense), Whipping Girl has serious omissions—it offers little discussion about the issues and experiences of non-binary-identified people, intersex people, trans male/masculine-spectrum people, straight-identified trans people, trans people of color and other cultures, and so forth. Many people have subsequently expressed their disappointment in these omissions. Had I known at the time that Whipping Girl would one day be viewed as an authoritative or definitive “transgender book,” I would have written it very differently: less personal and transsexual-focused, and more general and intersectional. But, for better or worse, it is what it is: the perspective of one individual trans woman situated in a particular time and place. And like all books, it will no doubt seem increasingly anachronistic as time marches on.
I’d like to think that Whipping Girl makes some points that remain insightful or useful. But I will be the first to admit that it is far far far from the whole story, and I am grateful for the many other gender variant writers of various identities, backgrounds, generations, and geographies that are filling in the many gaps that Whipping Girl misses. And as I said at the outset, I will continue to strive to articulate my ideas better the next time around.
*I put “third gender” in quotes to indicate that this is the language that the anthropologists during that era that I was critiquing used as an umbrella term for various indigenous non-binary identity categories.