28 August 2006

I Read the New York Times Sometimes: The Trouble With Trannies.

So, a pal of mine, a dyke, sent me an email with a New York Times link for an article called, "The Trouble When Jane Becomes Jack." It purports to describe the relationship between lesbians and F2M transsexuals. I guess. The piece was so fraught with misunderstandings, on the part of the writer especially, that I wrote a commentary within parts of the article in the form of long temper tantrum as an email to my friend. I am posting this tantrum, warts and all. I expect this post will change over the next week as I think about it more and hopefully as my friend sends me comments on what I've written.This is therefore a dialogue, and perhaps a trilogue, that will change and grow over the next few days. But first, you should read the actual piece, if you have bought the Times Select function, that is. If not, all you will get from the link is this abstract:

DISPLAYING ABSTRACT - IN the most recent season of the lesbian soap opera, ''The L Word,'' a new character named Moira announced to her friends that, through surgery and hormone therapy, she would soon be a new person named Max. Her news was not well received. ''It just saddens me to see ...

Correction: August 27, 2006, Sunday An article last Sunday about transgender lesbians referred incorrectly to Judith Halberstam, a gender theorist and professor of literature whose books include ''Female Masculinity.'' She teaches at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles; it has no San Diego campus.

Let this errata stand as a fitting coda/prologue to the article itself, with which I have many issues. Please, post all the comments you want. And now for the email:


Ok, I can't believe you sent me this article without comment. The funny thing is that transitioning has come up a couple times in the last few weeks, though now I'm blanking on one, the other was a short film Jeph's sister showed us concerning a family who's relative (an uncle/brother, and straight, by the way) was becoming a woman, a ,well, a lesbian. The film focused on his (now her) nieces and their confusion and questions about the matter. Interestingly, the youngest girl, 6, I think, had really no problem with the change, but viewed it as a fun new way to engage with her uncle that was unavailable before. It's called "No Stupid Questions"--or something like that, "No Dumb Questions." Oh, I remembered the other: Rosanna Arquette was on a talk show for some reason, and the host referred to her "brother Alexis," and Arquette corrected him: "My sister, Alexis." The remarkable thing about it was that there was a defiance in the way she spoke, but she also had a funny expression on her face, a very intense one that signaled unresolved feelings mixed with supportiveness (it seemed to me). It was almost like an irony. And when she first said, "My sister, Alexis" it seemed like she was snapping at the guy and lightly deriding this transition. As I've already suggested, I think it's more complex than this.

Now to the NYT piece. I'm beginning on p 2 because that is where I started getting really annoyed. In the end, I found this article to be quite sloppy even while raising many interesting issues that cluster around what we call "transgendered." I wonder why the Times bothered to print it at all, but then I think of that truly bizarre follow-up to the 2000 Florida election recount, and…nuff said.

The numbers are slight, considering the estimated five million gay men and five million lesbian women in the United States. Still, coupled with a simultaneous trend among the young to reject sexual identity labels altogether, some lesbians fear that the ranks are growing of women who once called themselves lesbian but no longer do.

Is THIS what this article is about?

"It's as if the category of lesbian is just emptying out," said Judith Halberstam, a gender theorist and professor of literature at the University of Southern California, San Diego, whose books include "Female Masculinity."

I was excited to see Halberstam until I read her quote. I am assuming that this statement is not in context because if anyone should have an awareness of the complexities of gender, particularly regarding lesbianism's relation to the masculine (and within that a specific kind of lesbianism's relation to that gender, that lesbianism being the butch or bull dyke), it's Judith. This quote, however, just makes her sound like a paranoid reactionary. Did she mention other reasons why she felt the "category of lesbianism" was being emptied out that the writer didn't include (I dunno, like the infamous Lesbian Until Graduation)? As it stands, this statement sounds like an absurd hyperbole and smacks of that whiny victimhood we find in one of the caricatures of feminism and LGB(T) activism. I blame the journalist. I mean, the ONE voice I was hoping to hear from on this matter was stripped of its nuance--she gets one fucking paragraph, and one stupid statement. Either that or lesbian-inflected gender theory in the academy is much worse off that I thought. Furthermore, the author totally conscripts her statement to support this idea that lesbians are disappearing and that those damn F2Ms are part of the problem! What is this stupid article about (a theme to which we will return)?

One more thing about Halberstam’s (strange) quote too is that I would expect her to be aware that all kinds of categories have been “emptying out” in the last fifteen years, as if a conceptual leveling out were occurring across traditional identity categories. People seem to be far less apt to identify along the lines of ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality (including gay), and class. This is illusory too because I think those categories retain more of their power among the poor, but the middle classes have always sought homogeneity; and as same-sex loving people and racial and ethnic groups are more assimilated into culture and the middle class, they seek that comforting homogeneity too. The fools. But America is a conformist culture and the vanishing of political activism and civic duty is a result of, and a pursuit of, this assimilation; moreover, I think the social-political climate since Reagan has everything to do with this impulse. I don’t know what’s going on among the youth of today, exactly--and by this I mean the people in high school and college. The conservative impulse towards traditionalism is strong, and yet I know in many places the phobias about homosexuality, and the fear of being perceived as gay, are being dissolved in a sort of, for lack of a better term, apathy about sexuality. My suspicion is that more kids are experimenting with both boys and girls in a sort of dismissive, thoughtless way; a naïve way. I don’t think this is necessarily bad. This “experimentation” allows them to move without labels, but that also denies them the social ties that those labels allow. Nonetheless, when they leave college, no matter how many boys they kissed in school, the ones who were going to get married will still get married, and the “gender-queer” will move to New York, or wherever, and call themselves gay. Halberstam’s view is marked by the academic world within which she moves and she’s probably seen a big drop in lesbian-identified women, but her diagnosis about lesbianism is probably overdetermined by her positioning in the one real place kids might get the chance to dismiss categories and labels (if we can even understand her diagnosis in this decontextualilzed situation). But the unknown history always repeats, and the repressed always returns, in one form or another.

Leaders of some lesbian organizations dismiss the idea of a schism or contend that it has been resolved in the interest of common human rights goals among lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people.

I am so relieved! Thank heavens someone's got her eye on the classic mandate of GLBT politics and activism. Of course, this comes with its own frequently under-theorized rose-colored glasses syndrome. But we'll leave the kumbuyas in the background for now and just be grateful that the writer included something that I actually believe in vis a vis queer politics and sexual-gender oppression, the theme of which continues below:

"The view in some lesbian corners that we are losing lesbians to transitioning is absurd," said Kate Kendall, the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "Given our history of oppression, all lesbians should encourage people to be themselves even if it means our lesbian sister is becoming our heterosexual-identified brother."

AMEN, sister! Or to state this last bit more precisely: the "lesbian sister" turned "brother"'s very struggle was with his/her gender. To him, he didn't stop being a lesbian or a woman; in his understanding, he never was. The journey by which he came to this conclusion is long and confusing given the gender-conforming demands of our culture, and then the demands of certain kinds of lesbian culture to "be" a lesbian or a certain kind of lesbian--and this from the group in whom he sought to find safety, protection, and community, an identity, or at least understanding. Of course transgendered men gravitate towards the lesbian: it's the only cultural category that seems close to how they see themselves, but eventually this identification—the lesbian, yet another in a chain of how many—breaks down, and the transgendered person, whom I will call "he," realizes that he doesn't fit here either. The issue isn't that he is a lesbian trying to live under the Patriarchy, it is that he is a man living in a woman's body under the Patriarchy, socio-medical categories that mostly find his existence unintelligible or invisible, and lesbian culture that might take this misnamed, mis-shapen, mistaken identity personally (those don't all take the same referent). What could be lonelier than the person who's joy in learning who he might actually "be" is coterminous with the wholesale rejection of that self by every community he has ever tried to be a part of as a female?

Now this brings us to an interesting place, and that is, of course, do we believe that a man can be trapped in a woman's body? Firstly, I feel the need to mention, I was taught—to quote from the nice lady above—that "[g]iven our history of oppression, all [gays and] lesbians should encourage people to be themselves." For me, this comes first. Therefore, if someone wants to be called "he" or "she," you call them that, just as when a person asks you to call them by a certain name, "Kate" instead of "Katherine." It's respectful, but also a bit radical, and it is part of the wonderful legacy of Queer Theory at its best when it took all the nuanced, critical, resistant good stuff from feminism, the civil rights movement, and gay and lesbian politics and culture. So, in our respect for the strange, the creative, the queer, and all the ways people don't fit neatly into categories (no matter how reassuring that would be for lesbians and gays too), we submit to the fact that, we agree that, it is not the job of the person naming herself to make us feel comfortable. That comes first, so for me, in a very important sense, the "science" behind the "wrong" gender in the "wrong" body doesn't even come into play. Who the hell are you to tell me I'm not a woman--or a man--which is the history of homophobia in a nutshell with its inverts, perverts, nellies, queers, sissies, butches, mannish women, gays, fops, outcasts, ad nauseum.

Many transgendered people invoke a kind of biological argument to account for the profound alienation they feel in and from their bodies and the cultural expectations that come attached to those bodies, when their own expectations of themselves seem modeled on the other sex. As I said, these feelings are marked by culture, and from a psychoanalytic perspective, cultural or even gendered expectations or desires cannot be genetically wired—and this makes perfect sense to me. So, if it comes down to a primordial identification with a gender—one so old and embedded it might as well be genetic, because you can't undo it—what is it exactly that makes a certain gay man's identification with and interest in things feminine, or a certain lesbian's identification with and interest in things masculine, any different from a transgendered person's identification with a certain cluster of gendered traits, life expectations, and so on, except a matter of degree? Do we punish them because they resort to dressing as the other sex? Do we ostracize them because they use surgical techniques to allow themselves to look to themselves as they feel, and probably just as important, to appear, to be, to everyone else, the way that they feel? The difference between lesbians who eschew frilly frocks, makeup, and hairdressers for pants and cropped hair and gay men who dress flamboyantly or in drag—and who must deal with prejudice and even violence against these "styles" (is it a choice? a defiance? a fashion?)—doesn't seem so dramatically different from the transgender question at all. This is particularly true when we note that many transgendered folks don't commit to all the possible surgeries, for financial, health, or other reasons, and so their transition is revealed in terms of a code, a sartorial one. If we allow the sartorial enough elasticity, if we think of it in terms of sumptuary laws for example, why shouldn't our "clothing" include the performance of gender roles or our very bodies, for that matter? And so, despite this last-minute, imaginative loophole, the thing we've been trying to tease out here, the difference between a butch dyke and a female-to-male transgendered person, is that at the end of the day—no matter how many masculine traits she evinces, performs, enjoys, or embodies—a lesbian still “is,” and wants to be, a woman. And somehow, according to this piece, to some lesbians the fact of a lesbian-identified woman transitioning to being a man, is a diminishing of the lesbian domain, a threat. But a threat to what?

We continue....

But in private conversations and in public forums like women's colleges, the questions about how to frame the relationship among lesbians, former lesbians and young women who call themselves "gender queer" rather than lesbian at all, seem largely unresolved.

Okay, this is already a fucked-up description. I'd like to sit in at a public forum at a women's college, which, the high population of women-loving women notwithstanding, certainly were not set up in the last hundred plus years to be a lesbian institution. There have to be some heterosexual women matriculating, who will pass through unseduced by the rebellious, experimental allure of being a Lesbian Until Graduation (an experiment that has the built-in clause of cashing out on graduation day to make a prodigal's return to the Patriarchy, marry well, and become, perhaps, a soccer mom). Do college women really sit around fretting over the "unresolved" questions regarding lesbians, "former" lesbians (the mind reels: were they ever lesbians? are they sell-outs to privilege [and this is what? women who prefer women but don't want to lose their trust funds? Do we want these lesbians]? lesbians who fell in love with men?), and women-loving women who abandon "lesbian" for "queer" because lesbian connotes something too political, not political enough, or the wrong kind of political? Have the discourses and investments surrounding same-sex desire among women become so intractable and balkanized that this question deserves this ridiculous paragraph? Or is this another example of a bewildered journalist (Paul Vitello--probably not a lesbian, though potentially transgendered ß LOL!) groping his way through a story he doesn't understand and to which he has no real connection. Let's watch as he cements his confused example of the anxiety among lesbians (former lesbians?) regarding the disconcertingly fluid domain of lesbian identity (or self-naming at any rate) as the cornerstone of his story. Remember, the last paragraph was about questions "in private conversations and in public forums like women's colleges...about how to frame the relationship among lesbians," former, and queer.

"There is a general uneasiness about this whole thing, like 'What are we losing here?' " said Diane Anderson-Minshall, the executive editor of Curve, a lesbian magazine. The issue stirs old insecurities about women being "not good enough,'' she added.

I assume Ms Anderson-Minshall is talking about lesbians (former lesbians?) transitioning to the male sex, but there is so much going on in this paragraph ("What are we losing here" becomes linked somehow to "old insecurities about women being 'not good enough.'" Huh?) and the prior one that the logic goes on vacation. What could we be losing, I wonder? Are we losing members in the lesbian ranks? Losing ground to the Patriarchy? Losing at lesbian public relations? I can't tell. Now I really love this next part.

Koen Baum, a family therapist in San Francisco who is a transgendered man, said the anxiety some lesbians feel has complicated roots. Some, he said, believe that women who "pass" as men are in some ways embracing male privileges.

Realizing that single line quotes from a lesbian academic and magazine editor might not present a balanced account of the problem (whatever this problem is), our intrepid reporter interviews real live F2M former lesbians for the transgendered view. Sure, I imagine "some" lesbians do imagine transitioning as a way of entering the comfy gentlemen's club of the Patriarchy. I wonder what other lesbians think? Left entirely behind is the history of women—and not all of them lesbians—dressing and passing as men on the frontier and elsewhere as a matter of survival, not as a bid for the luxury of hegemony. Just as not all lesbians are historians of women's history, not all lesbians are politicized, or politicized in the way Vitello and his sources suggest. I bet there are one or two dykes out there who actually know a thing or two about transitioning, who understand the difference between a lesbian and her struggle with male privilege and a person who feels he is a man in a woman's body, and therefore—if we have to invoke essentialisms—was essentially never a lesbian in the first place, but was, and this is important, a fellow traveller. We return to the article, which makes another dazzling logical leap.

Ben A. Barres, a professor of neurobiology at Stanford and a transgendered man, recently provided fodder for that view in an article in Nature and an interview with The New York Times. "It is very much harder for women to be successful, to get jobs, to get grants, especially big grants," he told The Times.

And this is why lesbians become transgendered men? The absurdity of this string of quotes makes the mind boggle and reel. Is this really all Mr. Barres had to say on the subject? Whom am I to believe in this puppet show of pulled quotes: the disgruntled lesbian betrayed by transitioning or the transgendered man who admits, what everyone already knows, that men have an easier time in the world, get more grants, receive higher salaries, etc etc? Oh, wait, these two puppets are saying the same thing. Maybe it's because they share the same puppet master. And now, the dark heart of this piece on transgendered men and the lesbians who no longer love them.

The idea of male privilege was also part of "The L Word" plot: When Max learns he is to be offered a job that he was rejected for as Moira, he promises that he will refuse it and tell off the would-be boss, but he later decides to take the job and say nothing.

Yes, "The L Word" and the awful specter of the sell-out lesbian, abandoning her principled stance against Patriarchy and its bias against women, their talents, bodies, lives, and value, for the undeserved advantage of maleness. It is the lesbian version of the self-hating nightmare Mart Crowley described so well in "Boys in the Band" when a character admits he would become straight and give up everything he is and enjoys, if he could do it with a wish. Gay activism was formulated against the straights; lesbian activism is always a feminism. And I, at least, can't help wondering if this reductive crystallization of lesbian mistrust toward F2Ms as seen on the high-gloss, fantasy-lesbian, soap opera called "The L Word" is the actual reason behind this article. All of the logic that Vitello's exposé sustains gestures back to this plot—and it seems like a plot in more ways than one—on a TV entertainment.

Mr. Baum said the anxiety also stems from fear over the loss of an ally in the struggle against sexism. "The question in the minds of many lesbian women is, 'Is it still going to be you and me against sexism, you and me against the world?'" he said.

Another thing that strikes me as loaded here is how the stand out expert lesbian reactions to the supposed problem describe anxiety, confusion, uneasiness, and loss, whereas it is left to two transgendered male voices to interpret, the otherwise incoherent, lesbian collective unconscious. Despite a couple nods toward reasonable and accepting lesbian voices, the overall impression of lesbians in this piece, regarding both themselves, and the bogeyman they've allegedly made of F2Ms, is one of hysteria. In his cursory exploration of what is undoubtedly a very interesting and very complex phenomenon (I still question its pervasiveness), Vitello's bedtime story of events even manages to pull double duty by acknowledging that men have an advantage in our society and then re-casting the feminist (read here: lesbian, since they appear to be the only feminists left) critique of male privilege in the familiar stereotype of overreaction. Are the women quoted in this piece ruing the day they answered the phone to talk to this reporter?

There are also practical questions: What place should a transgendered man have in women's spaces such as bathhouses, charter cruises, music festivals and, more tricky still, at women's colleges, where some "transmen" taking testosterone are reportedly playing on school sports teams?

Um, if an F2M guy is far enough along in his transition, from what little I know, and as that old saw common sense would dictate, he probably wouldn't want to use women's spaces. I mean, isn't that really the goal, to be able to use the men's toilet without seeming out of place? The corollary that logically follows, or perhaps precedes: if you want to be a man, leaving behind the spaces protected for women is precisely the point. A little sensitivity, patience, and reason can manage these unimaginative "practical" questions that truly are an index of the cultural resistance to the existence of transgendered people in the first place. This rationale is akin to the current mealy-mouthed hand-wringing about gay marriage opening the doors for polygamy, bestiality, and other alarming, better-keep-the-kids-inside horrors. Such reactions remain depressingly unsurprising in a culture that long ago consecrated, concealed, and contained the rank fact of sex in holy matrimony, the miracle of childbirth, the family, and motherhood. Heterosexuality doesn't properly have a name, because it is normal, so it is left to the named sexualities to raise the unseemly odor of coupled bodies and the body itself and that, even in the post-Madonna age, never fail to provoke the most demure, nose-holding, bourgeois hypocrisy. Lastly, and I have to comment on this: whenever "reportedly" pops up in a sentence regarding something as preposterous as the epidemic and insoluble dilemma of testosterone-enhanced "transmen" playing on women’s sports teams, I can't help feeling a little skeptical. Did someone start taking her testosterone in mid-season or something? Call the police! Moreover, in this case, the women’s field hockey coach who is unable to reasonably clarify why transitioning men are ineligible to play on the team should be fired.

Laura Cucullu, a freelance editor and recent graduate of Mills College in Oakland, Calif., phrased the question this way: "When do we kick you out? When you change your name to Bob? When you start taking hormones? When you grow a mustache? When you have a double mastectomy?"

When you cut your hair short, stop wearing make-up, and put on pants? Hey, I have an idea, why don't we ask the people in transition what they think? Gee, that might afford a novel take on the issue, I mean, instead of all these speculations from the sidelines. My question still stands, at what point does a transitioning man no longer want to attend a girls school? If we want to know when a man is no longer a woman, it might be best to talk to the person in question. But did our intrepid reporter think to ask these people this question? No. And by the way, who is Laura Cucullu, and why do I give a fuck about her opinions and her fretting over "kicking" anybody out of school, or the sisterhood, or humanity?

These questions do, however, raise another question: perhaps some transgendered men are reticent about giving up the friends, lovers, and safe female-spaces they’ve been in for so long. This strikes me as understandable, but not always unmanageable. I can’t help thinking that there are all kinds of conversations available between people, college administrators, friends, and lovers that include the transition and its social effects. No one gets to have it both ways. At some point the woman who wants to be a man has to accept that social role, but it is up to himself and the women and institutions of his recent past to accept the difficulty of the transition. A reasonable conversation must take place, and if the case of a transitioning woman in a women’s college takes place long before graduation—and I wonder how often this problem arises—this conversation must allow the possibility of the transitioning man finishing at a different institution, because of the mandate of the women’s college to graduate women. It should not a question of “kicking” anyone out, but a question of the transitioning man and what will allow this transition to occur with the least prejudice. Only the transgendered person can answer this question. And I wonder at any rate, should the burden of comfort not reside with the institution that has accepted this person for the brief period of education? And with this question, we return to the question of the damage inflicted upon the non-transgendered, the "normal," which is the message of this article. Those who worry about their sexed bodies drop away before the needs of those who have never thought such a thing. As always. And yet, this discussion about the sexed body seems to not occur in some places according to the article at hand.

The fact that there is no apparent parallel imbroglio in the gay community toward men who become women is a subject of some speculation.

There's an "imbroglio" in the lesbian community? Is there more evidence outside of the anecdotal evidence, I mean serious investigative reporting, of this article (and freakin’ “The L Word”)? And did the author call the editors of "Genre" and "The Advocate" to learn the self-evident gay take on trannies? I'll tell you, anecdotally, what I have noticed about the way gay men view the transgendered: they see them from afar as somewhat spooky freaks. I suspect that lesbians who don't go to all-women colleges and/or who don't go to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival probably hold a similar view when they think about it, which is probably almost never, just like most of the people in the world. Furthermore, I know lesbians in New York who have known all kinds of transgendered people, and I don't think it ever occurred to them that transitioning was a betrayal of lesbianism, feminism, or womanhood, or a joyous leap into male privilege. I wonder again how much the presence of the academy and youth has to do with some of the statements in this piece. Except for the editrix of “Curve” (have anyone heard of this publication?) the other negative opinions came from, or were in reference to, women’s colleges and academic theorists. Is the presence in these places of women transitioning into men more disruptive and confusing than elsewhere given the climate of idealism and that exciting first blush of community and feminism? I am left with the nagging doubt of why the author didn’t pursue the real world basis of “The L Word” plotline. Now, that would be interesting.

p3

Despite the tangled set of issues involved, the survival rate of lesbian couples seems higher than among gay couples when one partner changes gender, advocates say.

Oh, I see. But before we can allow that statistic to sink in and perhaps look like the success of feminism and its take on gender and identity, let’s go directly to a relationship that didn’t make it.

[...]

Other couples, like the former Sharon Caya and Natasha, found the transition much rougher. Sharon’s decision to become Shane coincided with Natasha becoming pregnant, having conceived with donor sperm. “When the baby came along, I wanted to become myself,” Mr. Caya said. “I wanted the baby to know me as I truly am.”

[...]

For financial and practical reasons, Mr. Caya, the legal director of the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco, decided to forgo “bottom surgery,” which could cost as much as $100,000 and would involve two or three operations to graft on an ersatz penis. [italics mine]

You didn’t really think we’d get through this piece without doubts about the authenticity of transgendered people’s, well, gender, surfacing, did you? And if “ersatz” didn’t drive the point home enough….

According to the standards of the European study, Shane Caya would not be counted as a transgendered person.

What is this doing here and what purpose does it serve? A paragraph like this is what drives me crazy about journalistic feature writing: it purports to present facts, but how does this do anything but support the (probably unexamined) bias of the writer and reinforce the ignorant received “understanding” of transgendered people as permenantly broken, freakish, and unnatural?

Natasha, a financial manager in San Francisco, still cries when describing Sharon’s decision to become male.

Sigh. Transitioning is just bad for everyone. Damn those selfish transgendered people!

“You’re in love with a person, but there is something about gender that is so central to identity it can be overwhelming if the person changes,” she said.

Yes, central to your conception of their identity. The question is what do you love when you love someone? Or maybe, what is love? I’m not trying to be harsh here, and I do sympathize with how overwhelming and upsetting this experience can be, or is, but it’s the way the problem is phrased here that bugs me. I imagine that Natasha said lots of things that never made it into the story, but this article repeatedly frames transgendered people as this problem, even as a trauma, to loved ones, partners, Feminist values, even Lesbianism itself. Yes, gender is central to identity…in the transgendered person, whose voice is absent in this place. “I decided I couldn’t be in a romantic relationship with a man,” Natasha says—which is fair enough—but that underlines her desire and its nature vis a vis her object, not the identity of the object in question, which in love is always the problem and the answer to the problem. Do we love the person as they are or the person we thought they were or would like them to be? And, by the way, is the “survival” rate (which immediately invokes danger and death) of cross-gendered lesbian relationships a testament to the power and success of lesbian-feminism in overcoming the prejudice against certain kinds of bodies? And to ask a very different question, what is the survival rate of cross-gendered gay male relationships? I bet it’s not too damn high. Sure, drag queens are fun, but if your man wants to be a woman, watch out, girl!

[...]

And when Mr. Caya attended a lesbian organization’s lunch recently, he recalled, he was welcomed by a woman who said she was “pleased to see a man supporting us lesbians.” His reply, he said, was quick and to the point:

“Of course I support lesbians,” he said. “I used to be one.”

This is a sweet way to end the piece, but it fails to resolve the troubling ambiguities surrounding the alleged troubling ambiguity of F2Ms in the lesbian mind that the author has done so much work to expose, confuse, and under-explain. This ersatz peace belies what even the most cursory deconstruction of the article reveals: a series of cultural categories in ideological conflict with one another with ignorance of one another being the common theme. Please, New York Times, do a follow-up by someone truly plugged into both the lesbian and F2M worlds instead of a straight, male feature writer from your Long Island beat stumbling with bemused surprise through places he knows nothing about. I have to go to watch “The L Word” now to see what fascinating lesbian feature will be in the paper next.

So, where does this leave us? I began this piece with the spectacle of a straight man becoming a lesbian. One of the things this article does not, cannot, address is the reality of heterosexually-identified people transitioning to the other sex. What has been taken by some lesbians, and this article, as a specifically lesbian problem, turns out to be a different animal. Yes, any situation with a transgendered person often involves confusion because it confronts troubling questions of our own gendered bodies; our fears about who other people are; our dependence upon gender and sex and self-evident, unchanging categories; and our need for simple, clear distinctions about, well, about everything. I had a great education in gender trouble, and this article made me confront the fact that not even the lesbian mainstream, certainly not the urban gay world, has the same take on these issues that I have. Twelve years after I learned about and thought about these questions, during a time in which I hoped the politicized parts of the LGBT community had resolved or at least tackled the questions of gender and sex and discovered or, let’s say, invented a resistance, or at least an ironic stance, to the essential positions and categories that structure and plague us all, through this article I have discovered at least two things: that there are lesbians that still cling to an uninterrogated sense of the feminine and the transgendered and that there are other lesbians who see the basic struggle as one of self-identification and respect for anyone in a rejected position. I had hoped that Feminism, which is the most underrated and most powerful critique of the world as it has been and continues to be, would allow lesbians a space to accept the transgendered and to re-understand gender itself. This assumption was a mistaken one to make wholesale. Simple answers always receive the widest reception and the mission of third wave Feminism has clearly failed and, as a most wonderful revelation, has died fallow for the majority. I don’t expect anything from gay men, they betrayed their political efficacy a long ago for any entry into the larger imaginary either through steroids, television, or marriage, and HRC is its most awful corporate-activist emanation. But the group that has held on so steadfastedly to a sense of the political, the lesbian, if this article is to be believed at all, is a travesty of the essential. Womanliness becomes the repository of self, of politics. I blame lesbians nothing for the misogyny of gay men, and so lesbian impatience must be understood, but any dyke who rejects the transgendered merely on ideological grounds pulls her into the same absurd arena as the Bush administration: if you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists. In fact, not being in Bush’s binary logic allows a whole world of possibility, not just an either-or formulation. What is most dismaying about this article is that it airs the dirty laundry of the LGBT to those who have no idea what the issues at hand might actually be. What is that dirty laundry? That “we"--and who are we anyway (do you know?)--that we don’t support each other. And how are we supposed to get anywhere with that?

7 September 2006
An Update of Sorts
Dan Savage weighed in on our Times piece in his column recently--it's fun... in his way. What interested me the most is that he brings up the "fluidity" of sexualilty, particularly feminine sexual identity, and sets it against what Savage sees as the marked stability of masculine identity. As I'm sure you recall (<-- lol!), fluid sexual identity was a major tenet of Queer Theory back in the day--"queer" was always intended as a rigorous interrogation of and resistance to sexual categories, as such. It is (or was) an interesting side-step on the issue, but the usefulness of the critique was neutralized long ago. Queer sought to jostle thought and find creative ways of escaping or even parodying the categories always imposed on the individual from the outside--the feeble remnant of this bold position resides in the image of young women calling themselves "gender-queer" so as not to have to identify as lesbian. Far from an informed affirmation of the queer, this depoliticized gesture grapples not at all with the questions of gender and sexuality. But is sexual identity fluid? Even back in 1993, I wasn't sure. Queer theory offered examples of kids who engage in boy-boy sex play as children but emerge into adulthood as the very definition of hetero maleness, but I could not dismiss the nagging fact that my own history did not describe this sexual fluidity at all--I had always been attracted to men. For Dan Savage the changeable nature of sexual attraction appears clearest in females: "A guy that's sucking cock at 18 will be still be sucking cock at 28, 38, and 108--but it seems that a woman can be eating pussy at 18, sucking cock at 28, and having her cock sucked at 38." The facile cleverness of this comment is especially disappointing after he had admitted a complexity to gender and transgender identity earlier in the piece. Transmen have an "M" on their ID now, Savage notes, they are legally male, penis or no penis. In addition to the legal status of the F2M, he is aware that former lesbian transmen feel they were always male on the inside and never "really" lesbian or even female, so his parting shot where he says a woman can end up "having her cock sucked at 38," only muddles the much of what he'd tried to explain. This is a logical quibble--and I know it's useless to hold advice "columnists" to a standard of clarity at the expense of a hammy and inaccurate bon mot (standards of writing, clarity, and reason loom near in the Times piece as well)--but his logic got me thinking because it returned to the easy comfort and assumed self-evidence of sexual identity, a self-evidence that he put into question by the felt status and legal status of the F2M.

Two questions. 1) Is a woman's performance of cunnilingis or fellatio at any age a safe marker of her sexual identity? 2) Is a woman who identifies as a lesbian at 18, but doesn't at 28 a lesbian? For that matter what is a lesbian? Common sense has always held that sexual identity is not just unchanging, it is intrinsic; it is your identity. This self-evident, self-identical, foundational status of sexual identity is what makes issues like gay marriage so intractable: though the anti-gay marriage laws stipulate the physical sex of the participants, it is the inherently perverse--i.e. immoral, unnatual or evil--quality of the homosexual person that is the problem (hence the instant logical leap to bestiality and other abominations). But, leaving aside the question of identity itself for a moment, what if all these names for various identities were only that: names? The point, in cultural studies (and queer theory), of describing the identities as "categories" was to issue a direct challenge to the oppressive history and assumptions behind the discourse of identity. So, to look at the 18-year-old, pussy-eating woman, perhaps the answer is as obvious as to say that she simply called herself a lesbian, and that she was mistaken. To put a finer point on it, the "former-lesbian" has just changed the name under which she traveled, not her identity; whereas the F2M transexual is heeding his inner-most sense of who he is, and was therefore, in his mind, never a lesbian. These are not examples of the same thing or even items on the same continuum--there is no "fluidity" to be found here, unless you count the possibility of changing one's mind.

I think the category of the Lesbian is a deeply fraught, contested, and dismissed one within the culture at large. The stereostypes of lesbians seem brutally oversimplified and sexualized, especially when compared to the media images of gay men. The confusion is only propounded, particularly in academic settings, where lesbianism as a "lifestyle," community, ideology, or politics might be unusually co-optable by the confused, the adrift, or the vicariously rebellious. It could be that the large, welcoming, feminist tent may very well admit some women who, after a while, realize they are not congenial toward its expectations and implications, and leave. This sort of thing doesn't happen to gay men because this form of articulated lesbianism is a Feminism; it is a politics, it is a stance. There are some women who decide to no longer identify as lesbian but who still call themselves feminists, and there are others who reject lesbianism (and its politics) as a larky, juvenile phase, and cast off feminism with it. Does this constitute an emptying out of the lesbian category, or simply a clarification of it? And if we look at the base fact of visibility, any woman-loving-woman relationship, even when called "gender-queer," still moves culturally under the sign of lesbianism. And so in the sense that queer theory did not alter the terms of the larger cultural discourse on identity, it can be termed a failure.

But we still wonder, does sexual identity exist, and if it does, in what sense is it fluid? This is a loaded question, of course, because all the terms that name sexual identity are human designations, indeed the very notion of sexual identity--or identity itself--is an assumption, or at worst a psycho-medical mechanism for social control. Before the homosexual was "invented" in 1896 (as a descriptive term), according to Foucault's narrative, there were acts. The primal scene of sexual identity is the act of sodomy, which could be anything from anal sex to fellatio to bestiality--a grab-bag of "unnatural" or "abnormal" sexual practices, in other words non-procreative--and sodomy was punishable as a crime; however, the act itself did not necessarily support an identity. The suspicion held towards an inherent sexual identity continued well into the twentieth century with terms such as "homosexual tendencies" and "practicing homosexual" preserving the notion that the problem involved acts and choices, that people choose deviance from the normal. "Tendencies" do not imply a "self" only an unfortunate pattern, but The Homosexual was a being with an unchanging essence. This concept was invented by a Hungarian human rights activist named Benkert as a reaction to the Prussian anti-sodomy laws of the day and as a defense for the men who suffered under that law. Benkert postulated that homosexuality was inborn and immutable and therefore the people who committed sodomy should not be punished as criminals--this is a novel approach to the law, which concerned itself with acts and to which identities were invisible. [An aside: one has to wonder how the law came about; did it seek to single out a particular kind of undesireable man who committed sodomy with regularity? It is unclear if the penal code was aimed specifically at men we would now stereotype as gay or at certain classes (working classes), certain urban locations (like waterfronts), or professions (like sailors)]. The category of sodomy creates the category of the Homosexual.

Benkert later used this template to establish other sexualities including, heterosexuality; and so, counter-intuitively, it can be said that The Homosexual is the father of the Heterosexual. It shouldn't be surprising that this is the case since, as I said before, the deviant is always named first as a way to define "normal" by giving an example of what "normal" is not. On the other hand, if sexuality is inherent and unchanging, there must be a name for normal sexuality, and thus we have heterosexuality. The concept of sexuality as identity and as in-born became widespread through sexologists like Krafft-Ebing, and it is clealry still with us. Then came Freud, who rejected the idea that sexual identity was genetic and suggested that sexuality has nothing to do with the bodily sex of the individual, but is produced in each person as part of her or his development. Psychoanalysis helped to enshrine sexuality as identity in the cultural imagination, but alas in the US his American followers declared homosexuality a mental illness (in contradiction to Freud's teaching) and used their authority to maintain a repressive climate against gay men and lesbians in America for most of the last century. In a tragicomic sleight-of-hand, American psychoanalysts privileged sexuality as the core of identity, yet rejected the paradigmatic example, homosexuality, as an illness.

Interestingly, all of the features from the strange history of The Homosexual are evident today: sodomy laws; the connection to illness, the unnatural, and the perverse; the concept of choice; and the medical model of inborn sexuality. But is there any such thing as sexual identity? Is there any such thing as a lesbian? If we believe Freud, each person has a sexuality, it is not genetic but is uniquely derived from infantile experiences. This nuanced model has been lost in the public discussion of sexuality, which is framed entirely and exclusively by the sexual object choice of the individual, and sexuality and identity are much more complicated than that. For example in lacanian psychoanalysis, homosexuality can occur in any of the list of psychic structures that describe the subject--by itself, object choice, either "homo" or "hetero," is relatively unimportant in this psychoanalytic perspective. So, if the lesbian is, bewilderingly, an effect of the history of sodomy, can she be said to exist? I could say that no matter the source of it, the nominalism that founds the social, sexual, and political struggle of lesbianism in history is enough: the Lesbian exists because and when she says she does. The existence of the Lesbian is most important to the Lesbian. To the State, to the status quo, to tradition, to power, it is her non-existence that is of concern: these murky, ill-defined clusters of ideas, interests, and prejudices just want her to go away, and so except when she is made an example of, she is invisible to them. That's so heady and abstract, so I'll say it differently: the lesbian exists and always will, because there will always be women-loving-women in the world, who do not stop being that way at college graduation, who do not wake up one day and want to sleep with men instead of women, and who do not want to become men. It's that simple and that complex. And this isn't because--or not just because--they really like pussy. Yes, the Lesbian is alive and well, right here in River City.

4 comments:

Joe Clark said...

God, what a bore.

Luciferus said...

ROFL!

Thank you so much for your considered, intelligent, and lengthy response. I hope this is a lesson to you: don't read my stupid blog.

Demosthenes said...

Bravo my friend bravo! Thoughtful, provocative and entertaining. I printed it out and found myself laughing out loud on the subway.
And what has become of journalistic integrity? Where have the investigators gone?

Fern said...

Gender roles are sacrosanct in this and all fundamentalist-dominated cultures. And I hate it when people presumably "on my side" adhere to them so tightly. Ick.

Oh, and that Joe Clark guy is a prick. (A rhyme!) If I may, I will quote from his webpage: "I do consulting on research and accessibility -- mostly topics like captioning, audio description, and Web accessibility." Joe Clark calls YOU a bore? And if you are out of Ambien, find his blog.

I'd drop him as my friend in an instant.