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Monday, October 18, 2010

The Stonewall/Bindel affair, and the politics of transsexuality (2008)

What would a revolutionary gender politics be? I don't have a clear answer, but certainly the area is one where there aren't many clear arguments of much use. The recent debacle involving Stonewall and Julie Bindel does allow us though to think about where to start.
Julie Bindel’s nomination for the Journalist of the Year prize (which she didn’t win) at the Stonewall awards this month ignited a storm of controversy, with many within the broad 'LGBTQ community’ outraged at the organisation’s recognition of a commentator with a long record of writing which they see as ridden with ‘transphobia’. This led to a colourful demonstration outside the event, and a not so colourful counter demonstration by the 'Julie Bindel fan club'.
Bindel, the Guardian’s stable ‘radical feminist’ has come up here before. Her stance on prostitutes organising was used as an example of moralistic thinking precluding effective action in this blog entry. Clearly, as a self-described ‘good liberal’ she is pretty far from any kind of anarchist/libertarian communist position, and so we shouldn’t expect much from what she writes – interesting as it is in showing how much ‘radical’ feminism in actual practice translates into simple radical liberalism, unable to go beyond various forms of civil rights activism. Her writing on transgender issues is pretty sloppy too, and the opposition to her 'transphobia' centers around two main and contradictory arguments she has made over the past few years:
1. Gender reassignment treats gender as an internal biological condition when it is not, and therefore surgically altering the genitals of transsexuals is the mutilation of gays or lesbians who identify with aspects of the ‘wrong’ gender and who are attracted to those of the same birth gender.
2. Transsexual women are not ‘real’ women, should not be treated as such, and should not receive support as such.
The first argument comes up in a number of articles, such as this, in which Bindel writes: ‘Feminists want to rid the world of gender rules and regulations, so how is it possible to support a theory which has at its centre the notion that there is something essential and biological about the way boys and girls behave?’ Claiming that ‘sex change surgery is unnecessary mutilation’, she argues that ‘my concerns about the increasing acceptance of "transsexuality” as a diagnosis are based upon my feminist belief that it arises from the strong stereotyping of girls and boys into strict gender roles.’
Though of course containing its own moral assumptions in seeing choosing to alter the genitals as “mutilation”, this argument is reasonably straightforward.
The second argument was used in some of Bindel’s earlier and most controversial articles on transsexuality, in particular an article from 2004 on the case of Kimberly Nixon, a male-to-female transsexual who had a human rights ruling in her favour in Canada overturned – the woman in question had been turned down employment from a rape counselling centre on the grounds that she wasn’t a ‘real’ woman: ‘The arrogance is staggering: having not experienced life as a "woman" until middle age, Nixon assumed "she" would be suitable to counsel women who have chosen to access a service that offers support from women who have suffered similar experiences, not from a man in a dress! The Rape Relief sisters, who do not believe a surgically constructed vagina and hormonally grown breasts make you a woman, successfully challenged the ruling and, for now at least, the law says that to suffer discrimination as a woman you have to be, er, a woman.’ She then, contradictorily, argues that genders ‘...are not real. We play at them. We develop traditional masculine or feminine traits by being indoctrinated, not because we are biologically programmed to behave in those ways.’
In which case it would be impossible to make claims about who is a ‘real’ woman or not. If it is the experience of ‘being’ a woman, then for Bindel’s argument to work you would have had to have been a ‘woman’ from birth, living some shared experience that possession of a ‘natural’ vagina entitles you to irrespective of real divisions (as if a cleaner and Deborah Mearden share any meaningful commonality despite both having vulvas, much the same as if a Muslim postal worker and a Muslim entrepreneur have any meaningful commonality as part of the ‘Muslim community’); having lived as a ‘male’ (with a real cock), however this played itself out, at whatever point in your life would disqualify you. Moreover this experience of being a ‘real’ woman is only accessible to those born as such, meaning it isn’t acted because in order to work it comes down to 'natural' genital endowment. This contradicts her arguments about not accepting arbitrary, institutionalised binary sexual identities, and clearly just dresses up her own gender essentialism.
She is right about one thing though: feminism’s most vital insight and argument was to decentralise the production of gender from a given biological ‘fact’ to a contingent social relationship. Gender is acted out through norms of behaviour, speech and comportment. Interpretations of this run from the fairly general acceptance that gender and sex are two different things - biological sex being the material facts of the body, gender being the roles and behaviours assigned to binary categories of people - to more radical analyses which criticise the ways in which biological sex is already a gendered category, seeking to understand the way in which sexual organs, hormonal differences, height and the rest to have meaning within a binary gender discourse in the first place.
But either way, gender must be understood as something which is learned and acted, and that a society that we’d want to live in would involve the dismantling of binary gender identities.
It is this argument which seems to be causing so much anger in the transgender community. Ultimately it comes to clash with the underpinnings of much trangender activism. Gender reassignment surgery does reify gender, it seeks to objectify and materialise a social relation. The argument that sex change surgery makes you a man or a woman is clearly reactionary – the belief that surgery makes you more of a woman is reactionary whether it is a transsexual or Katie Price doing it. And here is the controversy. Lefties of many varieties who will criticise cosmetic body modification as the attempt to make bodies fit into binary, ideal gender types when ‘natural’ women have it done will see the same argument applied to the modification of the body by transgender people as ‘transphobia’. It is not a coincidence that gender-reassignment surgery is supported by fatwa and easily available in Iran, whilst having sex with someone with the same genital arrangement is punishable by death, as the setup there reifies heterosexist, binary gender norms.
What matters, then, is the practical implications of the best insights of feminist theory. Clearly, the violence and intimidation transgender people routinely face is unconscionable. But the question again boils down to the contradictions between the politics of affirmation and the politics of negation. This may at first seem strange. As Slavoj Žižek amongst others has argued, the difference between the politics of oppressed and marginalised groups seeking to defend themselves and the politics of class struggle is that class struggle seeks as its end point the abolition of class. “Class pride” is a reactionary concept, and though class relations can and do express themselves through communities and class identities, if class struggle is to be part of a revolutionary project rather than the affirmation of the working class within capitalism then it must abolish capitalism and with it abolish class. Class is furthermore a material position within capitalism – those who have nothing to sell but their labour and who must work for the money necessary to live, those dispossessed of ownership of capital and who must sell their labour time and labour power to those who have or administer it. It is not a sociological category, but a condition and a social relation. The struggles of women, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians insofar as they are organised around the marginalised group must struggle for recognition of various kinds. But this, as so often, is an oversimplification. The various marginalised roles are themselves constituted within the process of their marginalisation – and though the material proletarian condition which is the prerequisite for capital accumulation is demonstrable in a different way to the constitution of various marginalised identities, we can still see the issue in terms of affirmation or negation: in the case of gender, either liberal feminism’s affirmation of women as bourgeois subjects with equal legal standing, or the radical project of the negation of gender binaries and with it gender identity.
So what would this look like in practice? I don’t pretend to have the answers. In the case of negating the proletarian condition, the answer is relatively straightforward: the direct communisation of the means of production, the abolition of wage labour and the replacement of the state by the construction of real human community through linked councils. Gender cannot be negated in the same way, though the same processes of seizure and transformation growing out of class antagonism. Its fairly easy to imagine that a society where the production of the entire social environment is no longer alienated would allow for a new kind of society and more radical possibilities, but its not enough to talk abstractly of revolution as being the cure-all we must invest our faith in.
But we do know where it can’t start – certainly not from the reification of binary gender identities. The task must be to destabalise and desacralise gender, and this cannot be done whilst upholding a belief in the ability to “match” bodily organs to gendered behaviour. The critique of gender cannot be held back because it offends the sensibilities of marginalised groups, and whilst we recognise the difficulties transgender people face, we can’t let those difficulties be an excuse to suspend critical thought.

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