Gender is a defining dimension in social and cultural identity that is present in every aspect of an individual’s life in Western society. It functions to extend privilege in some spheres and oppress in others and is a token in the complexities of intersecting identities. Gender in the West is a primary force in our social existence that most people have little or no knowledge of with the exception of inculcated epistemologies from myth, archaic ideologies, historical constructions, and misinformation. Gender is part of a complex identity structure that yields a lot of power in cultural economies and is imposed upon the individual at birth. An individual’s gender, determined by the identification of the genital geometry, is glimpsed in pre-natal examination, bet upon by expecting parents, planned with purchase of appropriate clothing, toys, and room colours, it is proclaimed upon the child’s exit from the birth canal with the inaugural “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl” that imbues the parent with paternal expectations, is promulgated with the issuance of state certification and confirmed by nurses busily tapping away at keyboards ensuring that the child named so-and-so born on some day somewhere will forever be ‘gender x’. This links sex and gender together in a method that lends the social construction a false credential of biological authenticity and legitimizes sex and gender as synonymous in common parlance.
During the 1995 World Conference on Women there was heated debate on gender and wether or not it is socially constructed and therefore open to change or, linked to the immutable nature of human biology and thereby a constant only affected by the slow revolutions of evolutionary momentum(Scott, vii). Gender and other constructions of identity penetrate our lives so intensely and so deeply that the thought of escaping them seems to be an impossibility, and that we are better off to simply foster compliance, and many do escape conflict by exploiting this avenue of inaction. It is the compliance of others that breeds stagnation; this inaction acts against change being promoted by those seeking it to ameliorate inequalities or arrest injustices. Advocates that prompt for alteration to the social fabric become targets for anger, hatred, and condemnation, not only from the public at large but from government, and even organizations working in their own circles of social justice. The transgender1 community, as a movement, has many difficulties due to the problems that the general public has with identifying, empathizing, and supporting the idea of transgender individuality. The transgender community is viewed as a fetishistic group of immorality that promotes perversion and seeks to do harm by invading public restrooms and luring good moral heterosexual people into homosexual deviant sexual relations.
The Transgender movement is consistently attacked on numerous flanks, including from within the movement itself. The movement has made appeals to various other social justice groups where ideologies may align and the movement has been tacitly combined with larger movements such as the LGBTT2SQQIASP2* and some branches of feminism. However, it is an unstable and highly volatile group that, like feminism and other movements is not monolithic. The individual’s who organize within trans collectives or interdependently with other groups all have agendas that are far from homogenous in their detail. The mainstream transgender movement operates within the confines of the state and works to advance trans-identities in politics and jurisprudence. Whereas other trans activists, using the works of early feminists like Simone de Beauvoir, approach advocacy with the lens of existentialism that aligns with the perspectives of French feminism. There are three primary components that form the foundation of the French feminist perspective of the transgender movement, although many will not explicitly make claim to being French feminists, the axioms hold true to existentialist philosophical theories and phenomenological thinking. The first being that gender is socially constructed and therefore it can be changed, amended, or adapted. Secondly, self-identification is paramount in basic human rights and true freedom of self, one cannot have agency over oneself if identities are assigned without consent and persistent throughout ones lifetime without availability to individual choice. Thirdly, that sex and gender are separate and distinct terms and open to an individual’s subjective interpretation of the world that may be contrary to their assumed identities based on phenotype, birth assignments, or other observations imposing subjective ideas objectively on others. The elements of this type of advocacy is abstract for many, and is perhaps the branch of the larger transgender movement with the most difficulties as it delegitimizes claims of other loosely affiliated movements such as gay and lesbian advocacy that cast sexuality as inherent. Further, it is a seen by radical feminists in particular as a direct attack on women and a devaluing of female bodies.
Radical feminism is the antithesis of the larger transgender movement in the West. This branch of feminism denies the authenticity of transgender individuals and the transition that they make between genders with or without medical or pharmaceutical interventions. The medicalization of transgender bodies are meant to align the individual to the expectations of the state, which dictate the order of sex/gender congruency as male/men and female/women and no other variations are accepted. To be sex/gender congruent is to be cisgender3. This is the same model adopted by medical institutions, some still continuing today, that surgically alter infant intersexed bodies to create viable sex/gender congruent citizens. Intersex conditions and transgender individuals are pathologically reified and treated as grotesque deviations from the norm and seen as a result of biological defect and retarded mental capacity. The state is very strict in enforcing cisgender ideologies on children. It is so important that many governments provide services to medicalize transgender bodies to maintain binary sex/gender paradigms. This has been applauded by transgender activists as a hard fought victory, but it is a hollow one as it is simply another method of enforcing gender by narrowing the identities and folding trans-identities back into the binary paradigm. Radical feminists oppose the medicalization of transgender bodies, although for very different reasons. The radical feminist view of surgical technologies used to create bodies aligning with pseudo-cisgender individuals is seen as an assault on ‘authentic’ women. Hence the transgender women4 are seen as patriarchal agents meant to undermine feminist organizing and transgender men5 are traitors to the same.
Radical feminists claim man and woman are artificial constructions created by patriarchy and advocate that gender categorization must be destroyed and that transgender identities function to continue the oppressive paradigm of gender roles. Of course most radical feminists attempt to escape their own bigotry and transphobic attitudes by claiming that they disagree, radically, with the ideas of transgender identities working within binary categories of oppressive paradigms that must be dismantled.. The irony is that the radical feminist movement talks about destroying gender while simultaneously creating themselves as vanguards to preserve that which they claim oppresses them. Radical feminists maintain that sex determines gender and since chromosomal sex cannot be altered transgender people are therefore invalid. It is interesting that a group that wishes the elimination of a particular social aspect violently opposes those who break the rules of the patriarchal institutions, and ultimately both patriarchy and radical feminism are synonymous in their nature of oppression and exclusions. As Janice Raymond writes in her book “The Transsexual Empire,”
“…chromosomes are only one defining factor,
in the context of the total history of what it means
to be a woman or a man, in a society that treats women
and men differently on the basis of biological sex. This
means that the integrity of the body must also be placed
in the context of the integrity of the total person, which
includes the realization of such values as choice, awareness,
and autonomy. Finally, if the transsexual answer reinforces
the foundation of sex-role oppression, which is
sex-role stereotyping, by encouraging the transsexual to
conform to these stereotypes, then it is also violating the
integrity of the society.”
The above paragraph is an excellent summation of the ideals of radical feminism in relation to, not just the transgender movement, but to transgender bodies as well. This is stark contrast to many writings of early feminists who detached ideas of gender from the body knowing that genitals should not dictate individual destiny.
Unfortunately both the broader transgender movement and radical feminism employ biology as a tool to legitimacy. The approach to activism rooted in biological essentialism is a short game that is more harmful than good and is only meant to falsely inflate the claims of the transgender movement, and it also provides fodder for radical feminist opposition as well. The very nature of the radical feminist critique of transgender bodies is that transwomen don expressive tools(pronouns, clothing, mannerisms, hairstyles, etcetera) fulfilling patriarchal expectations of femininity reinforcing strict gender roles, while transmen are shunned for deserting feminism. Approaching transgender rights from the perspective of existentialism, where the foundations are constructed of agency not biology, is to play the long game. It will take multiple generations to fashion and maintain new attitudes and social and cultural constructions overwriting the current binary gender paradigm.
The difficulty relating to the ideas of French Feminism is in accepting that the existentialist viewpoint does not allow an appeal to essentialist ideas of biological consequence that are rooted in the proclamation “It is not a choice” that has become the slogan of many LGBTTTT2SQQIASP* groups. If we are to hold true Simone de Beauvoir’s theory “one is not born, but rather becomes, a women”(de Beauvoir, 267) then we must acknowledge the process of this occurrence. In the absence of biological affirmation of gender then it follows that it is socially constructed for the individual by socialization and enculturalization. This compromises the underpinnings of a majority of transgender organizing in the claims to biological legitimacy, and there are many ranging from brain-based gender to genetics. In my opinion gender does not arise from some place in the brain, or from a sequence of genes. I understand that the appeal to biology is an easy method to accredit transgender identities, however, it is a dangerous one. If it is found that gender can be determined by biology the next logical step for the state is to develop testing for gender, and this may give rise to medical or pharmaceutical interventions to align the individual’s gender with state paradigms or selective abortions if testing can be done prenatally, or in vitro therapy. Another possibility is that many people claiming to be transgender will get tested and the results of those tests could contrast and jeopardize their identity. It is similar to the ‘gay gene,’ the implications of which are vast and seem to be dismissed by the many movements on various fronts of the arguments regarding choice versus immutability. If a male/man claims that he is gay and loves other male/men but is contradicted by negative results from a ‘gay gene’ test then is he still gay? This is but one of the many serious and far reaching complexities of founding a movement on biological essentialism. I am not worried however, because I know it is not biological, I am a transgender person, a transwoman, a hijra, a woman with a penis, and none of those are biological. If I believe that my ‘self’ is biological and simply the workings of cellular programming then that jeopardizes my ‘self’ with notions of definitive destiny that cannot be escaped. I have created my ‘self’ and created space to develop who I am, account for changes over time, attempt to maximize my own potential, and serve my ideas that revolve around ultimate self-realization. However, just because I have created myself using social and cultural tools does not mean that I, and others, are not authentic. Socially constructed identities are real because their consequences are real.
The importance of these gender dynamics are fuelled in part by heterosexual culture and the need for the connectivity between the reproductive organs to strictly align to a specific gender role to enforce the cultural pattern of bodily difference to create a visible divide to act as a cue for mate selection. Because those who cross gender boundaries despite their assigned sex are seen as a transgressors and ultimately confusing to those who are cisgendered, and indeed creates a level of fear that their chosen intimate relationships may be in jeopardy and that their prospective mate may not have the biological facilities to reproduce, or that despite the genital presentation or need for reproduction, may create ideas of homosexuality within the cisgendered person who develops a relationship with a trans-person. Because gender is the method our society uses to define sex and the consequential behaviours that are then signalled from that identification.
A primary axiom of radical feminism is to eliminate gender. A world without gendered language and gendered presentation and the known oppressions that have occurred in gender hierarchies. This attitude favours transgender identities as such a world would remove the violent forces that enforce the current strict sex/gender(cisgender) congruent paradigm. Gender abolishment, however, is simply a new form of gender oppression by removing the ability to identify with this particular construction altogether rather than evolving social paradigms to allow for a more complete human agency and experience the radical feminist, seeing gender as the single dimension of power and oppression in the West, fails to understand the broader intersectionality of oppressive power structures where gender may be a variable, even a foundational element, but it is not single weapon in the arsenal of violent social oppression in the West. The French feminist perspective is to allow the growth of identities and the multiplicity of possibilities in constructing oneself and ultimately freeing from the shackles of confining paradigmatic oppression. Further, the existential paradigm allows changing identities over time because the constructed self is not static and is a constant ongoing subjective project.
The philosophy and activism of the French feminist transgender movement in the West is slowly expanding as individuals begin to realize that they may transition and explore gender without having to be medicalized to legitimate themselves. There was a time in my life when I was falsely consciousness and I with the state medical institutions to perform the surgery I thought would make me a woman. However, surgical alteration conflicted with my religious and philosophical ideas. In the process of self negotiation and introspection I eventually arrived at the self-realization that I was already a woman.
Radical feminism permeates Western society in the general ideas about transgender individuals. The radical feminists disparage transgender persons and use glittering generalities and inflammatory language to create myths about transgender persons and rally support in the opposition of constructing social spaces for transgender persons and advocate for fascist gender state. Bigotry and transphobic ideas are reflected in radical feminist writings and are often extremely hateful, dehumanizing, and violent and only serve to do harm. It is difficult to seek amelioration with the belligerent attitudes of radical feminists who oppose the primary tenets of human agency and instead are focused on a zero-sum war with patriarchy in the context of cisgender binary power.
The philosophical ideas of French feminist transgender organizing are difficult to promote as they cannot be phrased simply and understood easily by most people in the West. Part of this is due to the abstractness of thinking about gender, sex, race and other identities as being constructed. Constructed does not imply false because of the lack of tangible empiricism that is so readily dolled out by the physical sciences, rather it is ontological and phenomenological. That is to say that constructed identities are about ‘what is’ and ‘how we experience’ the world and existentialism is taking responsibility for the authenticity of one’s self. Advocating for social freedom to construct the gendered self with no constraints or definitions of normal categorization is the cause of much fear in radical feminist thought and to the general public. The radical feminist’s see the power of the world held in the hands of male/men and that if sex and gender become divorced terms, and ‘existence precedes essence’6, they will not have the ability to polarize patriarchal power into the hands of female/women. Ultimately society will evolve and hopefully this evolution will follow a path of enlightenment that will remove barriers to self-realization and promote true human agency and freedom rather than an exchange of oppressive social regimes.
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1This umbrella term includes, but not limited to; two-spirit, gender queer, gender-bender, gender-fuck, transwoman, transman, gender-outlaw, post-op, pre-op, non-op, butch, femme, androgyne, bi-gender, tri-gender, drag queen, drag king, cross-dresser, intersex, and more.
2Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, Two-spirit, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Straight Allies, Polyamorous, * denotes other identities not listed.
3CISGENDERED: a person who operates within the guidelines of normative gender expression as it is constructed in the West as male/men and female/women; one who accepts their engendered social role without conflict or distress.
4Transgender women or transwomen are individuals who were birth assigned male and socialized initially as masculine persons but do not identify as such and therefore are living as feminine persons, with or without genital surgery or hormone therapy.
5Transgender men or transmen are individuals who were birth assigned female and socialized initially as feminine persons but do not identify as such and therefore are living as masculine persons, with or without genital surgery or hormone therapy.
6Jean-Paul Sarte’s existential axiom.