Questioning Transition Or Why It Does Make Sense To Ask “Where Have All The Butches Gone?”
Radical feminists have been getting a lot of shit lately for criticizing trans identities and politics. In some cases, radical feminists who’ve expressed critical opinions in the past have had speaking engagements rescinded though they were planning to speak on topics unrelated to trans people. Certain opinions concerning why or how trans identities and desires come to exist and the political implications of them have been branded hateful, ignorant and transphobic.
I’ve read quite a bit of radical feminist thought concerning trans people and politics, both older and contemporary. I disagree with quite a lot of it because it conflicts with my own experiences of when I lived as a trans person and my time spent in the trans community. Some of it I indeed find to be hateful, ignorant and transphobic. But often there are insights and understandings contained within such thought, at times greatly muddled through lack of much direct contact with the subject discussed, but nevertheless it accords in some way with what I myself have observed.
Many radical feminist ideas of how sex and gender operate in this society both agree with my own experience and have helped me to further understand my life. I have personally benefited from learning about critical perspectives about both gender in general and transitioning in particular. I seek to expand such criticism while avoiding what I find inaccurate and demeaning in other critiques because I think more questions need to be asked about the current upsurge in people claiming trans identities and transitioning. I seek to do so without demonizing anyone. Too much time and energy goes into hostile exchanges between radical feminists and trans activists that would be better spent attacking our oppressive society and/or creating an alternative to it.
At this point in my understanding, I think trans and genderqueer identities, like every other gender identification, are generated by social practices and cultural meanings and I’m sure that in most cases the desire to transition is also culturally created rather rooted in a biological condition. I’m less sure that this is true in all cases but I think it could be so. I can’t know for a fact if I’m right or wrong about this and I may not get any confirmation in my lifetime. If in the future, sex and gender norms change along with a significant decrease in the rates of people transitioning, that would seem to point to it being largely or totally social. Conversely, scientists may one day produce enough evidence that this is a biological condition, resulting in people being tested for this condition prior to transition rather than relying on self-diagnosis.
Regardless, I know my own circumstances are not unique, that there are others like me who transitioned as a response to living in this culture and/or trauma and that is enough of a reason for me to question what exactly is going on here. Why are so many transitioning now?
I don’t believe that it’s just because so many people are discovering that they’re really trans or genderqueer. Trans identities are projected onto to people because of their behaviors, appearance and self-expression regardless of how these people see themselves, some identities and expressions are more valued in the queer community compared to others and transitioning is often romanticized. These realities alone could greatly factor into how people see themselves and make decisions about their lives. And then there’s the possibility that trans identities could be a product of dissociation due to trauma, something few want to discuss. This is not just a theory, this describes my reality and that of other detransitioned women I’ve encountered. We don’t know how prevalent this is, and we won’t until the taboos surrounding this topic diminish, but it does happen. Some people really do transition because they were raped or abused.
Some of us end up looking back and conclude that we did transition to get the superior treatment and respect accorded males in this society. “Transitioning for male privilege”, while technically accurate in this case, is a simplistic abstraction that does not begin to cover the complicated lived reality. Those who totally dismiss such a possibility are right, people generally don’t consciously decide to transition for this reason. It only became clear to me in hindsight after I examined how I’d been treated as different genders and thought about how that treatment influenced my behavior and self-understanding.
I didn’t initially seek out male privilege, I accidentally discovered I could get it when I discovered I could pass. When I started unintentionally passing in my mid-teens, I didn’t think “Oh, now I get to taste all the benefits men get as a result of living in a patriarchal society.” I was just curious about what being seen and treated like a guy would be like and I discovered that I liked it. That got me to wondering if I was really a boy and eventually deciding that I was.
Now, I look back and compare how I got treated as a boy, known to be trans or not, versus how I got treated as a girl or genderfreak and I notice how much better I got treated overall as a (trans) guy. I can see how I gradually got addicted to being seen as male. What started off as exploration turned into compulsion. I went from being amused at the variety of gender attributions I received to needing to be seen as male. I see how other people reinforced this understanding of myself as (trans) male, the messages I got about how I made more sense as a boy, the use of male pronouns to refer to me without any prompting on my part, and the messages that as a female I was gross, wrong and unnatural. I got told what a cute boy I was far, far more often than I was called a handsome girl.
I didn’t decide one day to become a man so the world would treat me better. Rather, I was gradually conditioned over a period of several years to assume a status that got me more respect and enhanced my social opportunities.
I hardly think I’m unique in my susceptibility to my environment. I feel as though there’s a certain stigma surrounding our ability to be influenced by the people and culture surrounding us. We’re all supposed to be strong, self-creating individuals and in such a context, admitting that our identities and behaviors are interdependent with the world around us can come off as being weak, stupid and deficient in one’s self. But we’re highly social creatures, permeable to the world around us. We take in so much information all the time, much of which we’re not even aware of, that ends up creating the reality we live in and the self we live through. To become aware of our connections to the world ought to be encouraged. This may result in realizing that we are a lot less independent or untouched by the world than we thought. Such knowledge may be threatening at first but facing up to it will make us stronger and help us learn how to avoid being influenced by our environment in ways that don’t benefit out being.
When some critics say that people like me were “brainwashed by the patriarchy”, in some senses they may be right but they don’t make it any easier to come to terms with my experiences. There’s often some defensiveness and superiority in such speech. I’ve been duped and corrupted but they’re above such contamination. Well, I think we’ve all been brainwashed, not just by patriarchy but by capitalism, racism and imperialism, to name a few prominent actors in this global horror-show, and we all need to work on freeing our minds.
People who dismiss the social pressures to transition will also use such statements about people being “duped by sexism” when arguing against them in a way that prevents discussion and discourages people from sharing their experiences about cultural influences and transitioning. When they dismiss this argument they often simultaneously reinforce the idea that only weak, incompetent people give into society and since all the trans people they know are strong and intelligent they can’t then be influenced by social forces or subcultural pressures. They’re too smart to fall for a trend. Again, this covers up that all of us are conditioned by the people and culture around us. Being pushed, pulled and molded by society doesn’t make you weak, it makes you normal. That’s why I want to change the structure of society and social relations so that it strengthens and encourages our freedom, health and awareness rather than manipulating or inhibiting them. Pretending that our culture doesn’t effect us or that we can totally step outside its effects may protect out sense of self at the expense of making us more vulnerable to social control.
The most important reason for me personally to ask questions about why people are transitioning today or taking on certain identities is because I think there are lots of people who are needlessly transitioning, who could be happier and freer without changing their bodies. Based on the ideas I absorbed about sex and gender in this culture, I believed that I needed to transition but I now find myself happier and more fulfilled living as the sex I was born as. I know from my own experience that some people become trans as part of a flight from reality, as a coping mechanism and that it can be a constriction of being rather than healthy self-creation. Being trans can be a type of confinement that doesn’t even seem limiting until you get out of it.
And I think there are people who are rejecting living as women because they’ve come to have a very narrow view of what women are. They’d most likely deny this, as I would’ve done when I was younger, because it’s not conscious knowledge but what their whole organism has learned living in this restrictive culture. I think there are a lot of people who are convinced that they could never be women who could in fact be quite content living as women if they just came to a different understanding of what a woman is.
At the very least, if people are going to make such choices about their bodies and how to live their lives, let them know that there are people like me out there who didn’t find transitioning or living as a man or a genderqueer to be a solution to my problems. I’ve learned quite a lot from living as several genders and taking t. I’m a critic who lived through what I’m criticizing.