Aside from its political slant away from normative terms and institutions, the Q has proven irksome to the LGBT lobby for other reasons: its potential to inconvenience the T.
Trans people and trans issues have achieved unprecedented visibility in the past year. As the spate of murders of transgender women across the U.S. has demonstrated, things have not gotten better for everyone in the LGBT community. Given the continued dangers of exposure, the LGBT lobby has identified transgender rights as the new frontier of civil rights and has succeeded in convincing most liberals to agree.
Many of these rights should be uncontroversial: equal protection under the law, equal access to employment and housing opportunities, and an end to official discrimination regarding the use and presentation of one’s body. But some of the other rights and recognitions being demanded are more complicated. And they expose another rift within the LGBTQ+ community.
Transgender phenomena have appeared throughout the history of Western civilization, especially in the realm of mythology and religion. In her 1990 doorstopper Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia (a self-identified libertarian lesbian who says she has long considered herself a “transgender being”) detailed culturally specific forms of transvestism and transgendering across the centuries, ranging from the religious cults of ancient Egypt and classical Greece to the subversive, promenading crossdressers of Victorian England, and onward into modern times. Genital and bodily alteration—castration, circumcision, etc.—have likewise been practiced since antiquity. The Greek legend of the Amazons, for instance, held that these warlike, androgyne women would amputate the right breast in order to more swiftly draw a bowstring. Likewise, as Paul Preciado suggested in his “body-essay” Testo Junkie, chemical management of gender characteristics has also been practiced throughout the twentieth century, and is consistent with broader attitudes toward sexuality, gender and identity in Western consumerist culture.
What is new today is not the notion of gender as a flexible category. Rather, a series of high-profile cases have brought transgender phenomena into the public eye, raising questions about the complex nexus of legal, medical and corporate power that now adhere to them. And as with the movement for same-sex marriage, the most visible and vocal activists have prioritized the battle for inclusion in existing social norms and institutions, as opposed to a more radical agenda that would emphasize the need to transform them. This has especially been the case with the fraught conversation surrounding body-altering procedures.
Although celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner can afford any medical service on offer, sex-reassignment surgery (SRS) and related therapies, such as hormone replacement, are still routinely denied by insurance providers, placing them beyond the means of many who desire them. Liberal transgender advocacy organizations have aligned to challenge these policy exclusions—but doing so has entailed certain tradeoffs. While it took years of lobbying for gay liberation activists in the Sixties and early Seventies to persuade the American Psychological Association (APA) to declassify homosexuality as a “disorder,” convincing insurance providers to cover transition-related therapies has required a medical pathologization. Those seeking coverage for such procedures are now diagnosed with “gender dysphoria” (formerly “gender identity disorder”). According to the APA’s diagnostic manual, DSM-5, gender dysphoria is “manifested in a variety of ways, including strong desires to be treated as the other gender or to be rid of one’s sex characteristics, or a strong conviction that one has feelings and reactions typical of the other gender.” U.S. federal agencies and some district courts have begun to accept this diagnosis, determining that SRS and related therapies are protected under Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. In 2012, the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services stated that protection “extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity.”
Let us pause to consider this notion of failure.
In The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam likens the experience of queerness to a sort of muddling through acknowledged failure—the failure to satisfy social gender roles and expectations. Sontag had already said so in her “Notes on ‘Camp,’” even if she used the more antiquated and narrow term “homosexual” to refer to what was then the queer subculture. Also from “Notes on ‘Camp’”: “The most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one’s sex.”
My childhood and adolescence composed a long catalog of gender failures. I was uninterested in watching sports and bad at the ones I was expected to play. My friends were the weird kids whose families blew into town one year and suddenly pulled up stakes in the middle of the next. I didn’t walk right (light in the loafers) or talk right (no lisp, but a high lilt) or have girlfriends. The list goes on. So I doubled down on my schoolwork, determined to get out. In middle school, I stayed late for math club and rode the late bus with the theater kids. They were nerds and failures too, and I liked them. Some disappeared before graduating.
Even before this, as a young child, I sensed there to be something transgressive about favoring women’s clothes when playing dress-up, about my predilection for dolls and my fascination with perfume. A desire “to be treated as the other gender” was present, if not vocalized. Obliquely repressed at home, my queer tendencies made me easy prey at school. Classmates watched me fail at boy things. The taunts and malice were learned behavior: I was not from a tolerant place.
As I navigated adolescence, my idols remained women. I aped the caustic ennui of Roseanne’s vinegary daughter Darlene and cultivated the dry superiority of Daria and Jane on MTV. I passed hours deciphering the lyrics of songs on Tori Amos’s Boys for Pele for clues to my future life (another failure), and listening to Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville at don’t-knock-on-my-door volume. These “feelings and reactions” made me wonder: Why had I been born a boy?
I did not dislike my body so much as distrust it. Gestures, carriage, inflections, undesired changes: it was always betraying me. Giving me away. If you had suggested to twelve-year-old me that I was in the wrong body, I would have rushed to agree. Of course, I had not yet heard the word “queer,” except as a slur.
“Dysphoria” derives from the ancient Greek dysphoros, which refers to a state of discomfort, something “hard to bear.” Dis-ease.
The other gender. The definite article rankles me now. Binaries die hard. Meanwhile: in 2014, Australia and India legalized the recognition of a third nonspecific gender that is simply “other” than male or female.
Queer theory flourished late last century, on the heels of Judith Butler’s landmark 1990 book Gender Trouble. Butler theorized that gender was not a natural consequence of biological sex, but rather a learned and negotiated social performance. Many aspects of this theory hardly seem radical today, having been thoroughly absorbed into liberal ideals about parenting. Boys and girls do not emerge from the womb desiring trucks and dolls. Men can be graceful and nurturing, women uncouth and aggressive. These “expressions” of gender identity are the observed and performed reinforcements of social types and do not directly correspond to the sex phenotypes “male” and “female.”
Though initially embraced by contemporary transgender intellectuals like Kate Bornstein, Butler’s notion of gender as performance is now sometimes criticized for reducing gender to theater and play—the signature of other power relations. Many of today’s transgender theorists argue, contra nineties-era queer theory, that gender is not defined by behaviors at all, but is “ontologically inescapable and inalienable” (The Transgender Studies Reader). Often with reference to brain science, some even assert, with former Harvard University president Larry Summers, that gender traits are biologically fated. In this schema, an inalienable gender identity, like the female soul Jenner described in the Diane Sawyer interview, is not a learned public performance but an innate sense of self. Gender is shepherded from the queer free-for-all back into a binary that corresponds to male and female sex categories, except in the case of transgender people, for whom gender identity and socially assigned gender are mismatched.
While medical evidence has supported the assertion that sex is not the clear-cut binary that we might have once assumed, the claim that gender is “ontologically real,” “inalienable” or the inevitable result of brain chemistry effects a more pernicious adjustment to queer theory: it naturalizes gender. This is a variant of the politics that motivates the quest to find a “gay gene.” If only we could prove that all of this were out of our control, decided, if not by God or Spinoza’s Nature, then by some other unidentified Power. “Cisgender” and “transgender,” terms meant to describe socially assigned gender conformity and nonconformity, respectively, have thus reintroduced binary division into a conceptual space from which queer theory had hoped to banish it.
Beyond the hairsplitting halls of academic gender theory, the conversation about transgender phenomena has centered on celebrating the ways trans women—usually not trans men—proudly adopt conventional beauty standards. Journalistic profiles of these women often embrace the trappings of hypertrophied female gendering: remarks on trans women’s hair, nail polish, and makeup are the set pieces for reporting on their experiences. Bruce Jenner had to theatrically let down his hair for Sawyer to begin her interview in earnest. And when Jenner came out to the world as Caitlyn, it was via a Vanity Fair cover shot by Annie Leibovitz, featuring Jenner styled and posed in a fashion that recalled a 1950s pinup girl.
Back in 1991, when the third wave of feminism in the U.S. was swelling, Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth lamented the stranglehold social demands still placed on women’s physical appearances, identifying both eating disorders and cosmetic surgeries as behaviors women undertook to comply with media-driven beauty standards. The so-called “transgender moment” has not changed this. The “failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity” is still disdained, even if a choice between the two is now available.
Mara Keisling, of the National Center for Transgender Equality, has likened the slow uptake on the transgender right to surgery to the “inevitability” of same-sex marriage. The analogy may prove correct in more ways than one. Justifying a “right” to surgery, like justifying the “right” to marriage, requires advocates to endorse traditional roles or institutions. When doctors tell Diane Sawyer, and the rest of America, that nearly pre-linguistic babies can be diagnosed as experiencing gender dysphoria and that gender-nonconforming adolescents must be treated right away, they reinforce the notion that failure to perform one’s socially assigned gender role—to the varying satisfactions of one’s parents, schoolmates, friends and bullies—is a problem with a medical solution.
Granted, many transgender people see no need to undergo SRS or hormone therapy. And many who do take advantage of newly accessible procedures have no interest in appeasing gender norms. “Transgender” has become a more capacious term than that. In fact, although the cis/trans dyad has gained currency, it’s clear that many who cite or use the terms don’t believe in such stark division: their notion of gender is still inclined to what in decades past was “queer.” The group Gay Shame San Francisco, which undertakes direct-action campaigns to disrupt what the group sees as the commercialization of queer identities, often uses the compound “trans/queer,” and welcomes solidarity from anyone who shares their anti-assimilationist agenda.
But just as the focus of gay lobbying groups on state-sanctioned nuptials determined the horizon of queer politics in recent years, so the legal and medical pragmatist flanks of trans activism appear to dominate, for now at least, the way America thinks and talks about transgender phenomena.
Incorporate: to take in, to become part of a body, to make indistinguishable, embody.
Butler based her theory of gender trouble on Hegel’s belief that humans require recognition—that is, that they want others to perceive them as bearing the worth they accord to themselves. She suggests that this desire for recognition motivates our gender performances. “When Hegel made the claim that desire is always a desire for recognition,” she writes, “he was, in a way, extrapolating upon this Spinozistic point, telling us, effectively, that to persist in one’s own being is only possible on the condition that we are engaged in receiving and offering recognition.”
Maybe liberation from rigid gender roles first requires the strategic gain of socially recognized movement between gendered categories, even at the expense of reinforcing a limited binary. Or maybe not. The difference is between recognition and incorporation, between persistence in one’s being and in becoming that which persists.