Claims to Identity: The Trans Debate, by Simon Cooper

Simon Cooper

18 Feb 2016

The fallout generated by Greer’s remarks about trans woman Caitlyn Jenner after Glamour magazine awarded Jenner ‘woman of the year’ could easily be dismissed as a pseudo-controversy—clickbait for media industries dependent on advertising revenue. Yet the issue around transgender recognition and feminist politics warrants serious consideration. It highlights the clash between different understandings of gender, where a new generation of feminists and activists shaped by postmodern conceptions of the body and subjectivity practise an aggressive identity politics against their forebears. Bound up with this new politics are assumptions about gender, embodiment and social relations that are less progressive than their proponents might wish.

These issues tend to be obscured by a facile debate around freedom of speech, the right to ‘offend’ and so on. This was the case with Greer. If her attackers did not want to engage with what she had to say, instead petitioning to ban her from publicly speaking at a UK university, her defenders were not much better. If old colleague Peter Craven defended Greer in The Age, joining a small minority, he did so by defending her right to express unpopular ideas. Like others, he ignored the actual ideas. In the case of both freedom of speech and freedom of gender identification there is a strained liberalism unable to understand how such freedoms might reflect rather than challenge the contemporary political environment.

Greer called Jenner ‘delusional’ and desperate for public attention, and claimed that trans women are not ‘real’ women. She stated, ‘I don’t believe a woman is a man without a cock’ and that ‘if you didn’t find your pants full of blood when you were thirteen, there’s something important about being a woman you don’t know’. She argued that ‘misogyny’ played a significant part in awarding Jenner the ‘woman of the year’ title. Conversely, those petitioning against Greer claimed she was not merely transphobic but also misogynistic. In The Huffington Post, Payton Quinn wrote, ‘if you believe that trans women are women, as you should because they are, then what Germaine Greer is espousing in her campaign against them is misogyny’. This view was widely held.

Whatever one might make of her remarks, at the very least Greer was right to be suspicious of the sudden promotion of Jenner to woman of the year. So keen were Greer’s detractors to find evidence of transphobia that they paid little attention to the Jenner image, where a made-up, glammed-up and sexualised Jenner as trans cover girl reproduced the logic of the patriarchal gaze. Few questioned whether Jenner, a wealthy supporter of the Republican Party (not known for its support of difference or minorities) and a member of the hyper-narcissistic Kardashian family, was an ideal figurehead for the transgender movement. At the very least this might have taken the edge off the idea of Jenner’s ‘progressive’ transformation.

What got more attention were Greer’s remarks about identity and the body. Relating woman to markers of embodiment—genitals, menstruation, menopause and the like—caused her to be dismissed as an essentialist who clearly did not understand the difference between sex and gender, who had obviously never read Judith Butler. By now any humanities student knows that there is a difference between sex and gender, and that biology isn’t destiny. The idea that gender identities are ‘performed’ has become a truism. However, it’s one thing to distinguish between sex and gender; it’s quite another thing to say embodiment and biology float free of history and culture, subject to the needs of identity.

Postmodern culture has certainly reconfigured our experience of the body as more abstract—subject to medical and scientific intervention, understood as something malleable. From radical diets (a new body in six weeks!) to exercise culture, from genetic mapping to cosmetic surgery, we can customise our bodies, and we have developed philosophies and cultural frameworks that reflect this. Few now claim that our identity is tied to our bodily essence. Our immersion in digital technologies, where social interaction is carried out without embodied co-presence, means that bodily experience is often marginalised. If early cyberculture held the utopian view that you could ‘be anyone’ online, transcending physical and material limits, contemporary digital culture embraces an identity politics that shares a similar premise, where claims to identity are sufficient to secure the actual thing. However, even in this world of disembodied speech acts, the body cannot be discounted. Witness the rise of subjective trauma—embodied reactions caused by often purely discursive assaults on one’s identity. While the demand for trigger warnings and safe spaces may seem excessive, they reflect a fragile subjectivity whose entwinement with a body remains inescapable.

The relationship between the body and identity may have loosened up, but this does not mean that the body can be discounted or reshaped at will. Experiences of the body intersect with culture, are shaped and felt over time. Some embodied experiences—birth, trauma, illness, ecstasy—transcend the capacity of language and culture to understand or contain them, making them especially powerful. The body is irredeemably social, material and temporal, and embodied experience is shaped by structures that transcend the self, including gender. When some wag remarked that Jenner couldn’t win woman of the year when she had been a woman for less than a year, they pointed to a fundamental division. It does neither biologically born women nor trans women a service to conflate different forms of experience, embodiment and subjectivity. Greer’s listing of some of the features and biological processes of the female body—ovaries and uterus, menstruation and menopause—is not simply biological essentialism but indicates how these things are integral to gendered identity. They are physical process subject to culture and to forms of social integration and understanding, and they are experienced over time. Their meanings can/should be challenged as part of a political project, but they cannot be dismissed by an act of will.

Nothing precludes distinguishing between biologically born women and trans women and supporting both. Saying that a transgendered woman is different from a biologically born woman is not necessarily to cultivate prejudice but to acknowledge a fundamental difference. As Miranda Yardley, a trans woman (and a minority voice in this debate), has noted, the idea that ‘“trans women are women” is a dogma that reduces what it is to be a woman to an identity and erases women’s reality…the lives of women and trans women are different’. The alternative, to simply allow claims to gender identity to be the only measure of validity, is both conceptually weak and politically suspect. It is conceptually weak because the definition of a woman is circular: ‘what is a woman? Someone who identifies as/feels like a woman’, and it is subject to the very essentialism postmodern theory discounts. To be female here is to refer to an inner feeling that cannot be quantified or challenged in any way.

The politics of this is not progressive but disempowering. If we cannot speak of the specificity of female bodies (noting that their meanings are socially and culturally shaped) then the condition for gender belonging is simply the declaration of one’s identity. The result is that the category of ‘woman’ is so elastic as to be meaningless. If a biological man identifies as a woman and this has the same status as a biologically born woman then ‘woman’ as a meaningful category disappears. To reduce gender to an identity claim is to discount the experience of both biologically female women and transgendered women. Moreover, if you disregard the material reality of biological difference then it becomes difficult to discuss patriarchy. It’s hard to speak of the exploitation of sexual or reproductive labour without referring to the specificity of female bodies.

Beyond the transgender debate lies a bigger issue around the lived materiality of the body and its relationship with techno-capitalism. If identity politics often reduces gender to a performative claim, new technologies work to enhance the process. The logical extension of those who object to Greer’s insistence on embodied specificity is an embrace of medical and reproductive technologies that have the potential to remove the body as a ground for experience—from IVF to artificial wombs, cloning and genetic intervention. At what point do we escape the messy materiality of the body and become something else entirely: posthuman subjects floating above history, social relations and culture?

What we call late capitalism or neoliberalism works by transforming existing relationships into market ones. To do this it needs to reduce cultures and institutions that lie outside the market. This is obvious in the attack on public institutions, perhaps less clear in the erosion of cultural relationships that are not fully commodified. The more we dis-embed ourselves from such relationships and the more we are recast as individuals who must continually assert who we are, the more we turn to the market to buttress our claims. Underneath the aggressiveness of contemporary identity politics lies a precariousness where the ungrounded subject is compelled to perform their identity. The market offers multiple ways to do this, hence the appeal of consumerism. If, however, we recognise that a fully marketised way of life is unsustainable/undesirable then we need to recognise the limits of identity politics—its dismissal of historical bodies and collective experience, social classes and forms, and how it robs us of the language through which we analyse wider patterns of oppression. It is in this sense especially that the implications of Greer’s remarks ought to be taken seriously.

About the author

Simon Cooper

Simon Cooper is an Arena Publications editor.

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Simon Cooper makes a very welcome and timely contribution to the media’s ‘transgender & free speech no-platforming’ panics. I would only add two points to his observations on identity politics. Firstly, that the current Transgender furore is probably indicative of the volume of top down pressure on marginalised identities. Transgender people have achieved something quite special in that they have broken the binary division between gendered systems of representation and appropriated cultural and biological signs that best suit their identities. In this sense simply being transgender should be sufficient in itself and its acceptance should be demanded of society – in fact during the 90s & noughties some transgender artists experimented with the label ‘third sex’ to describe this achievement (I’d recommend the photography of Della Grace as an example). However such is the pressure to conform that some campaigners have felt the need to simply adopt the labels of the other half of the binary – of being a ‘real?’ man/woman etc – and therefore have inadvertently re-imposed the existing disciplinary regime. Top-down pressure has produced this sort of regressive campaign tactics before. During the period that gay men were accused of having made a ‘perverted choice’ which defied ‘how God made them’ and that supposedly required remedial ‘conditioning’, some felt the need to respond by saying they were born gay. Yet from Freud to Foucault there is little consensus that people are born heterosexual and therefore no obligation should be put on gay men to self-legitimise by self-labelling in this way.
To put this in crude terms, if I experience racism the answer isn’t for me to re-label myself as white but to demand acceptance on my own terms. Obviously – rather than simply relabeling to fit some pre-existing external template – gay and transgender people are similarly entitled to insist for acceptance on their own terms. Hopefully transgender activism will redevelop the confidence to resume along these demanding lines.
Secondly, part of the ‘pressure problem’ here has been the considerable weight of attack that grassroots movements – such as Transgender activism – have been experiencing from the mainstream media. Many groups have turned their back on the sham neoliberal corporate media hegemony, which defined politics as cosy stitch-up between corporate lobbyists, professional politicians, their spin-doctors and the journalists that regurgitate their copy. Students in particular have been content to ‘no-platform’ (uninvite) mainstream voices which have a hostile corporate media supported profile. The response by the corporate media has been to generate significant ‘moral panics’ about grassroots activism and one of the worst culprits has been the ever right-ward moving Guardian/Observer newspapers. This list of groups they’ve stigmatised has been long and includes Muslims, Trade Unionists, grassroots Labour Supporters, Peace Activists and now Student Activism in all its forms including anti-racist anti-imperialist groups, Feminists and Transgender advocates. There have been many examples. Black students who didn’t want to be lectured on their ethnic responsibilities by white officials ‘talking about the problem of radicalisation and sexual grooming’ with a pro-government agenda were smeared here Feminists protesting about the ongoing moral panic phenomenon feature in this letter with mass signatories. A similar mass signed Complaint about a media blitz against NUS equalities officer Fran Cowling after she refused to share a stage with celebrity activist Peter Tatchel – and which accuses him of complicity in the moral panic – features in Britain’s PinkNews
Current ‘ speech’ moral panics are an attempt to forcibly impose corporate media friendly voices into the spaces that are rejecting them. Yet fundamentally democratic freedom means students – or any other activists – aren’t obliged to issue invitations to people to enter their social spaces. It is not as if fair representation is being reciprocated within the corporate media. Basically grassroots groups need the space to make their own mistakes and develop their own strategies. Abusing them in this way is not helping Transgender activists – or any other grassroots groups – in their development

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