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Monday, 3 November 2008

The Transsexual Industry

In the UK, the largest LGB* rights organization is called Stonewall. You'll note I didn't say "LGBT."** They don't say it either. They're a lot like the HRC in the States.

They're about to have an awards banquet where they're going to recognize various people who they feel are good for the LGB community. One of the people nominated is a journalist named Julie Bindel, who is a Radical Feminist*** lesbian who writes for the Guardian. Like most radfems, her writings on trans issues are often transphobic. She has written transphobic things in her column in a major newspaper. Trans activists are displeased that Stonewall wants to honor this writing.

Alas, I am not talking about subtle differences in opinion. She has used slurs and thinks that trans people shouldn't have access to hormones or surgery, saying, “Sex change surgery is unnecessary mutilation." While she's apologized for past slurs, the other stuff she hasn't. She recently issued a statement about the controversy, which does not back away from those positions. (Indeed, the quote above is from it.) Instead, she says, "I am the victim of an organised group of bullies who seek to discredit me and silence any radical feminist debate around the issue of GID**** and of the transsexual industry."

The transsexual industry? Does she imagine that trans people are some kind of profit center for the NHS? That's as mad as making claims about the "abortion industry" in the US! In fact, it's almost exactly identical.

Earlier in her statement, she talks a lot about Claudia, somebody who had SRS and then regretted it. She writes,

In 1985, after a consultation with Reid that lasted only 45 minutes, Claudia was diagnosed as transsexual and referred for surgery. . .. In May 2007 after a case lasting three years, the General Medical Council's disciplinary committee ruled that Reid had prescribed hormones to five of his patients too soon, and referred them for genital surgery without properly assessing their mental and physical suitability. . . .. [G]etting to know Claudia was the catalyst for me in deciding to research the hidden side of sex change surgery, namely the validity of the original diagnosis of GID, and the stories of those who regret taking the hormones and having the surgery.

In the States, anti-choice activists claim that there is an abortion industry, where woman-hating male doctors cajole their patients into having abortions which leave them mentally and physically scarred for life. They mention the cases of some unhappy women who wish they hadn't done it. They bring up some doctors who have faced discipline for unethical acts. Based on this, they argue that abortion is harming women and ought to be made illegal.

Bindel is using the same argument. And this betrays a fundamental truth about her perspective. Anti-choicers want to remove agency from women, so they imagine that somebody else has already done so. They see themselves as guardians of a helpless and contemptible class of people. Similarly, Bindel imagines that trans people have no agency and should not be allowed control over their own bodies. Like anti-choicers, she imagines a sinister "industry," eager to prey upon weak victims who fall into their clutches.

And yet, in both cases, most of the people who utilize these "industries" don't see themselves as victims at all, but as agents empowered to take advantage of what was a hard-won right. I would like to imagine that the parallels in argument would give any feminist pause, but as right wingers have happily co-opted language from the left to paint themselves as victims, I can't imagine anyone of any political stripe would be above borrowing language and arguments form their ideological enemies. If painting others as victims works for your cause, then you would use it. I'd hope that the agency-denying aspect of the argument would give leftists pause, but, alas, this gets into a larger critique of radical feminism.

If seeing trans people as full adults won't work, maybe she'll note that medical malpractice is a real issue, but when somebody has their spleen unnecessarily removed, we don't condemn all spleen surgery as a result. But if logic doesn't work for anti-choice activists, it won't work on their ideological twin. After all, there's a sinister industry afoot.

* Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual.

** T is for transgender or transsexual or other gender minorities.

*** Not the fun kind

**** Gender Identity Disorder is the diagnosis used to give hormones and whatnot to trans people want them.


eigenadam said...

It seems really strange to me that there often tends to be discrimination originating from members of groups who have been traditionally been discriminated against. Why would someone who has had trouble with gender and social expectations be anything but completely sympathetic to someone with different social gender issues? I just don't get it.

C Hutchins said...

Radical feminism invented the concept of patriarchy. They were the first to assert that sexism is one of the organizing principles of society.

Except they didn't say "one of." Many radfems say that sexism is the ultimate prejudice and the major negative social force in society. Personally, I don't think it's useful in any way to argue about whether sexism is worse than racism or other isms, as they all clearly function together.

I don't understand radfem theory well enough to explain it, as it annoys me, but some part of it relies on the idea that men and women are discrete classes of people. And rather than modify the theory to reflect reality, like many ideologies, they're against the part of reality that conflicts with the theory.

Alas, there are many fights among the gender-concerned. Trans people fighting genderqueers. Different kinds of trans people fighting each other. It's human nature.

MgS said...

"Radfem" theory is fairly easily dismantled from a trans perspective - the radfem argument about gender tends to fall into the 'biology is destiny' trap quite quickly, especially when confronted with the deconstruction of gender and sexual identity that many transsexuals end up arriving at through their own self-analysis.

(I gave one poor prof who was a devout follower of Judith Butler a mental hernia by asking him to explain my experience of gender in Butler's terms ... he eventually gave up - and quite quoting Butler in the course every 10 seconds)

C Hutchins said...

I don't want to dismiss the entirety of radfem theory and writing, nor the entirety of Butler. Their theories are incomplete and flawed, but they've got ideas within them that are worth saving. "Patriarchy" is among those.

I think current radfems really ought to re-evaluate their theories in light of third wave feminism and the trans movement, etc, and update as needed. It's not an easy time to be a feminist, so their reluctance on this is almost understandable.

MgS said...

I reject radfem theory that bases itself upon an incomplete, and arguably flawed definition of gender. (In this case, flawed to the point that it denies an entire known population the validity of their personal and collective narratives)

Are there aspects of radfem theory that have merit? Of course - I just happen to think the underlying notion of gender they work from is so flawed as to be fundamentally meaningless.

C Hutchins said...

I have only a passing familiarity with radfem theory. I think most of their most valuable aspects have been folded into the larger feminist discourse. So if every radfem quit tomorrow, most of their good ideas would still survive.

I used to read "I Blame the Patriarchy" and Twisty Faster, the radfem author of that blog, would sometimes say incredibly insightful and interesting things. But I quit reading it because of the gender essentialism.

Radfems came up with the idea of "female socialization" which is a valuable idea, I think. But they have this idea of a monolithic gender socialization where all boys have the same thing and all girls have the same thing, which is how they unartfully dodge charges of "biology is destiny." In their theory, socialization holds girls back, who are innately just as good as boys, but socialization is inescapable and means then gender lines can never ever be crossed, so nobody can transition.

But, in there is the germ of a very useful idea: gender expectations are taught and enforced by society. Which is something that I think trans people can agree with, as we are familiar with what happens to those who transgress.

This is what's so very disappointing. They take very similar ideas and reason with them, leading to bad, transphobic conclusions. We should be on the same side!