Monthly Archives: June 2014

Transnormativity and ASD

I wanted to share some of my experiences of being trans and on the autism spectrum after talking about this to trans friends with an ASD diagnosis and after reading this article of another trans person with Asperger’s syndrome, which felt very true.

Transnormativity is the idea that there is One Narrative to rule them all as far as trans experiences go. This narrative goes more or less like this: Janet was assigned male at birth because of her genitals, but from her earliest memory, this felt wrong to her. In childhood, she cross-dressed and expressed that she was/wanted to be a girl, but no one listened to her. At puberty, she experienced traumatic changes in her body, which didn’t develop breast but did grow facial hair, etc. Eventually, probably because she’s desperate to the point where it’s either transition or suicide, she decides to make her body match her identity, so she makes a full transition that reaches its climax and long-awaited ending with SRS. After SRS, Janet is now a full woman and assimilates in the crowd of other (heterosexual) women.

(For the record, I used the trans woman example because trans men tend to be forgotten, even in trans environments — if this must describe normativity, let’s go all the way at erasing other experiences.)

This may be because many trans people have experiences that match this, and that’s perfectly fine, but it may also be reinforced by the very history of transgenderism and its relationship with health professionals. The earliest criteria (which often still apply in practice) for accessing medical or legal transition mandated to follow the normative path. Trans people had to remember being trans since forever, they needed to have indulged in gender transgressive behaviour as children, they had to follow this exact path and to aspire strongly for the same conclusion — surgery and invisibility. Trans people, not being stupid, knew that, so if they did not fit these restrictive criteria for whatever reason, they just invented a story that worked and lied so that they could access much-needed resources.

Some consequences of this are that 1) unsurprisingly, trans people tend to tell this story to health professionals 2) trans people who don’t fit well in it feel a sense of shame, of not being really trans, or of not being trans enough, or whatever. As the article linked to above says,

it seems as though that if this is the narrative other trans* people are judging themselves against th[e]n very likely, once again, those under different intersections that influence their experience may be feeling that their trans* journey is less legitimate or that they aren’t really trans*.

I don’t fit this normative discourse. Yes, I felt wrong from an early age,”the earliest I can remember”, but my being wrong was not gendered at that time. Not only is trying to force the narrative on me not going to work, but it denies the specific intersectional combination that makes my experience as an aspie trans girl radically different from that of other trans girls or trans people.

To explain this (and to give some hope to other aspie trans people or just trans people who don’t match transnormative discourses), I shall tell you a little story about myself.

***

My childhood is a bit shady. I have few memories before high school (and even then…), and we moved a lot  when I was young — I lived outside the country between 2 and 6.

I did feel wrong from an early age. I have clear memories of it by age 9, but I think it was already there when I started school at 6. All the same, this was not a question of gender, but of basic functioning — looking people in the eye, understanding social cues, keeping relationships or friendships (or at least ones where I wasn’t exploited or mistreated). This was hard work for me. Part of this meant acting like a boy and doing boy things, which meant whatever other boys were doing, because doing that was normal, and I was not. As such, I had to stop creating my stories in my head, because it was not typical (i.e. feminine), I had to like sports and watch hockey, because it was masculine (i.e. normal).  So that’s what I did.

As you see, I didn’t live two different spectrums of (neuro)typical/atypical and of masculine/feminine. It was one single spectrum, “abnormal”/masculine — I know abnormal is offensive, but that’s how I described these behaviours for myself. I did abnormal or “aspie” things which were wrong and had to be corrected despite my own desires, and I sought to do masculine things, which were right because people said they were normal for me. I was acutely aware of gender and of “normality”, because I had to make constant, active decisions (even if I acted them as non-decisions) involving both all the time.

I never strongly felt male or female when I was a child. I have no memories of that, at least — I have few early memories of anything. I do remember some instances of my behaviour being policed for gender conformity (I’m thinking of things like crying or liking arts and craft), and I was bullied in some gendered ways (my high-pitch voice was too feminine), but nothing more. I did not say anything to that effect.

I never felt the desire to wear female clothes, but I never felt the desire to wear male clothes either — in fact, I loathed it in many ways, yet I did what I had to do because I had to in order to function. I couldn’t bear the effort of buying clothes or even choosing them. It was completely overwhelming. Most of my clothes were very old and/or tattered, and except for my jeans and pants, most of them were gifts or clothes I got for free. I didn’t see this aversion as gendered either. In fact, I had next to no concern for my appearance beyond minimal hygiene. I didn’t want an external appearance, I didn’t care. My existence was entirely internal. There was no “me” outside my thoughts, because that outside “me” was alienating to me whenever I saw it.

This became more acute with puberty. Unlike what the standard narrative suggests, I never felt “betrayed by my body”, but all the same, everything that happened to my it was wrong and painful. My main strategy was to go even deeper into my own world and into denial of my body.

Facial hair was the most obvious case: in my mind, I did not have facial hair. Everyone would see it and propose that I start to shave, but no, I did not have facial hair, how could I? So I didn’t shave, because shaving was acknowledging I had facial hair, and I didn’t. Sometimes, I tried, but it was painful. It stabilized a few years before transition at shaving my whole beard about once a month, when the beard itself became annoying. However, when I did have a beard, I had a hard time knowing that the person I saw was me. In photos, I looked out for someone without a beard and could rarely find where I was in crowded scenes. After all, I didn’t have a beard. I felt more or less the same way with body hair, except I could be in denial more easily. However, from time to time, I “noticed” I had body hair, or more body hair than before. I generally panicked when that happened. Sometimes, I just shaved out of fear. But I never thought of that as sometime related to gender.

My voice was the exception. I don’t think puberty changed it really much or at all, for which I am supremely glad today. But all the same, it was much more ambiguous back then. On the one hand, I was taken as female on the phone, which wasn’t unpleasant. On the other hand, I was bullied because of my voice (and other stuff, of course). I sometimes tried to make my voice more masculine, or felt I had too, because if I wasn’t masculine, I would be abnormal. I didn’t really put much effort into it, though.

Another aggravating factor in my case was that I went to an all male school. I don’t remember why I chose it. I have no memory of how the school being all-male affected the decision. I think the school’s prestige played an important part. Anyway, the prestige is why I never left it after, even though I always had frequent thoughts of leaving it after the first year — it was strongest in 2nd year, but I repressed it, and in 5th year, when I started to have strong suicidal thoughts. Anyway. Going to an all-male school aggravated the abnormal/masculine dichotomy, because the only permitted model of normality I saw was masculinity.

***

Starting in sec. 5, I was seeing more girls. Then, my two best friends, whom I met on the Internet, were girls, and (some) girls were allowed in school in senior year. I started to have models in my life of female behaviour beyond my family and from people of my own age, which changed how I understood gender. As a general rule, seeing more girls of my age made me adopt behaviours similar to theirs — slowly, but surely. My relationship to sports changed a lot, from playing often and watching even more to a more “girly” way of following sports and doing less physical activity to doing neither and feeling an aversion to sport in general (attitudes that are generally coded as feminine).

As life started to get slightly less horrible after high school, I didn’t feel as much need to repress my atypicality and my oddities — and it so happens that these often took the shape of feminine thoughts. The clearest example I remember is when I said publicly that I wanted to be pregnant. This is something I had wanted for a long time and still want today — I google “uterus transplant” every few weeks to see if anything has happened recently. But when I said that, I didn’t feel I was expressing a deep desire to be female as I would be now, I was just showing how charmingly excentric I could be as a person. Once again, it was abnormal vs. masculine. When framing myself as different from everyone else, I had to be female.

My mental health was also informed by this way to understand gender. Starting in my high school senior year, I started to self-harm and did that for years, and felt good about it in part because it’s framed as a feminine behaviour. Similarly, since I’m 18,  I have an eating disorder (think “anorexia” or something like that), another girl’s problem, and it always felt right to me. Both started/intensified as my female identification grew (see below), so I saw more clearly that there was an issue of gender in play. However, once again, my feminine aspects could only exist by doing something that is otherwise “abnormal”, and coming back to normativity was coming back to masculinity. I self-harmed way longer than I should have because by that point, I cherished the little femininity I had and feared too much masculinity. Same with anorexia. I don’t think it’s coincidence that it’s only now that I’m fully asserting myself as a woman that I’m taking real steps to fight my eating disorder.

In cégep, I learned about the concept of “gender” and about trans people. Although the idea would slooooowly make its way from there, it changed nothing to my existence — unlike many trans people who follow the standard narrative and who seem to have an epiphany when they first heard to word “transgender”. At first, the idea of not acting as my birth assigned gender didn’t make sense to me. For years, even though my own way to understand myself changed, this was just impossible. I found every possible argument available to discredit this, from cost to society to trans-exclusive feminist rhetoric to “nature” nonsense, but only for me (because others could take their own decision and I respected that). I was the only one not allowed, because my daily script for not being bullied, harassed or whatever — for being seen as normal, for being accepted and thought worth living — was to act masculine. And we people with ASD don’t like changing scripts that much.

***

In the end, my gender and my ASD are so intertwined that I explored and discovered them both at the same time. My gender transition and my progress with ASD were two paths I followed concurrently for more or less the same reasons and causes, and moving on one path helped me on the other. In both cases, it’s a discovery of how I function in society that followed from attending university and meeting more and more people, and even bonding with them. ASD was the first candidate to explain “me” and my problems, which were very deep before I started to work on this.

However, having isolated this component of my person and identity, I realized it didn’t explain everything at all, and that my gender was also an issue. Actually, even my research on ASD was characteristic: I watched a lot of Youtube videos, but only those from female aspies. Slowly, I was making my old abnormal/masculine axis into two different axes: a less self-stigmatizing neurotypical/autistic one, and a masculine/feminine one. As I learn to understand myself, gender and social capacity becoming different things.

Although I rarely actively identify to my ASD, it was the first to make sense. But roughly at the same time as I started to look into ASD, perhaps a few months later, I also started to assert to myself that I didn’t have a gender, that I was in no category whatsoever. This was the first time I thought about my gender in any way. It never really worked, and slowly, I overcame part of my own internalized transmisogyny and ended up transitioning. Understanding that I was a woman strongly helped with autistic symptoms like not caring about appearance, etc. Now, I accept much better than I have a body and that it’s normal and not wrong, and that I should care for it and love it. Now, I can see myself as a physical being. I put more effort into my appearance, and feel much better about it and about myself. Similarly, I’m much better at social relationships now that other see me in a way I like — as a beautiful young woman.

Gender Transition in the Middle Ages

I’m doing some reading on gender change in the Middle Ages, and I thought I’d share some early thoughts on how medieval attitudes and theories could express the idea of gender change or of a difference between genital sex and gender performance.

First, it must be said that in the Middle Ages, God was a given, and so was His omnipotence. God had power of two types: ordained divine power, i.e. the power to create the world with a set of rules ordering it, and absolute divine power, i.e. the power to do whatever He wants, despite His rules for the world. I have no proofs for this, but I would imagine that, to medieval minds, the division between men and women, at least physically, was ordered by God, as suggested by Gen 2: 22-24. The result is a strictly binary gender-system.

However, in medical practice, this malehood and this femalehood ordered by God was defined on the basis of an epistemology completely different from ours. The standard medical theory in the Middle Ages was humourism. Following Ancient Greek doctors, medieval medicine thought physical health and psychological temperament all derived from the specific mix of the four humours in a given person. Accordingly, so were sex and gender: women were colder (i.e. they had more black bile and phlegm) and men were warmer (i.e. they had more yellow bile and blood). Since this mix was highly specific, it was conceivable that there be a continuum between the extremes, as opposed to a strict binary, or even that someone with a vagina but very warm humours be more man than woman in some ways, because the genitals (and possibly other characteristics) were the only female characteristic that didn’t fit. As a result of this definition of sex, achieving a functional amount of masculinity despite a female body possible, at least ideally — Joan of Arc is a milder real life example of wealth of literary characters. In literature, these are all referred to with masculine pronouns (Weisl, 2009).

I must admit I do not know any example of MAAB people living as women in literature or real life, or at least not outside specific ritual practices (Davis, 1979). This may have been the result of the gender-system itself, because the very genre of the chanson de geste was only about men. It makes a lot of sense for a woman-bodied person with warm humours to be represented as a male hero in literature, but why would anyone have written stories or male-bodied being women, i.e. cold-humoured, passive, in the background, subordinated to men? Same thing with historical characters. If there was a reverse Joan of Arc, i.e. a man taking on women’s role, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have heard about it. After all, we barely hear about women in general.

Obviously, assuming male roles and/or identity did not change one’s genital, which were still framing male-identifying people as women, or even “betraying” them and revealing their nature. But here, the medieval imaginary proposed answers from metaphysics, through absolute divine power: God can, by absolute divine power, change someone’s genitals and sexual characteristics (just like modern plastic surgeons can reshape them). Of course, I’m pretty sure the hand of God did not frequently intervene in really life, but this potentiality was exploited in the epic Tristan de Nateuil or the romance Yde et Olive, where divine intervention played the role of a terminal point of gender change, of the achievement of (in this case) masculinity, just as SRS does today (Weisl, 2009). In both case, sex change happens to cancel the danger of same-sex union, which is much more dangerous to patriarchy.

To conclude, I will share a Jewish poem from the 14th century, expressing Qalymos ben Qalymos’s desire to be a woman, despite everything. I find it very touching as a trans woman and medievalist.

Lord in heaven,
who brought forth wondersby fire and water for our Fathers,
cooling Abraham’s Chaldean kiln,
so in its flames he’d not be burned;
who altered Dina’s fate in the womb,
and made a serpent of Moses’ wand;
who whited with illness Miriam’s hands
and turned the Sea of Reeds into land—
transforming the muddy bed of the Jordan
into passable sand,
and making from stone and shale
a pool whose springs would not fail
if only you would make me female!

If that alone might be done,
how wondrous then would be my fortune!
Spared the arduous labor of men,
I’d settle down and raise my children.
But why complain and bitterly whine?
If my Father in heaven is so inclined
as to fashion me with a lasting deformity,
how could I ask that He take it from me?
Worry about what just can’t be
is incurable pain and endless misery;
empty condolence is hardly an answer.
“I’ll just have to bear it, “ I said, “though I’ll suffer
until I wither away and die.”
And since long ago I learned from tradition
that both good and bad deserve benediction,
in the faintest of whispers I’ll mutter each morning;
Blessed art Thou, O Lord—who has not made me a woman.

(Source)

(On a subjective note, I find the ending beautiful. I’m rarely moved by poetry, but this is beautiful.)

Reality does not follow from fiction. Here, Qalymos accepts the situation ordained by God, i.e. that you can’t choose whether you are male or female. However, what he hopes for is divine intervention, the action of the absolute power of God, as in the many miracles God showed the world in the Hebraic historical tradition. If God can split the Red Sea, He could remove the “lasting deformity” from which Qalymos suffers. To medieval minds, God is the most natural recourse for such a change — just as medical science was in the early 20th-century for transsexual people (Stryker, 2008). But he doesn’t ask for that. He accepts God’s will, as he must, even though he will suffer.

Works cited

Davis, Natalie Zemon (1979). Les cultures du peuple : Rituels, savoirs et résistances au 16e siècle, Paris, Aubier-Montaigne.

Stryker, Susan (2008). Transgender History, Berkeley, Seal Press.

Weisl, Angela Jane (2009). “How to be a Man, Though Female: Changing Sex in Medieval Romance”, Medieval Feminist Forum 45 (2), p. 110-137.

Fight Oppressions, Not Oppressors

There is no such thing as “a racist”, “a sexist” or “a transphobe”.

Behaviour is racist, not people. Sure, someone who fires black employees because they are black is committing a racist act and has racist attitudes, but they are not “a racist”.

I treat oppressions as systems of schemata which are reproduced in reality, i.e. in thought or in behaviour, and that work to create a framework of discrimination and disadvantage for a given group, often through hierarchies. As such, they can exist in people’s behaviour and mental processes, but also in discourses, in institutions, etc., which are beyond individual persons. It is a bit abstract, but then Einstein’s general relativity is a bit abstract as well, yet it works.

(NB: In this article, I’ll often use racism as a generic example, but unless otherwise noted, it is probably applicable to any oppression.)

In some ways, it is useful for social movements to talk of “racists” or other oppressor types, as it reinforces internal cohesion by creating an Other, an enemy to fight. However, that is done at the expense of the very goals of the movement, and especially of its educational purpose. When you attribute oppression to people, anyone who practices any kind of even mildly oppressive behaviour is put in an oppressor-category such as “racist”, “misogynist”, “transphobe”, “homophobe”, and so on. Since these words are loaded, it antagonizes the people who do these behaviours, it puts them outside your community and against you — and who is against you? Other people with racist, misogynistic, etc., attitudes and behaviours. Add in the fact that, when cognitive dissonances are resolved, attitudes change more easily that behaviours, and this is what you get: By calling someone a racist, you may have made them one, you actually perhaps not create, but at least strengthen the category you’re ostensibly fighting against. Reality follows discourse on reality. When you turn fairly open-minded people who don’t know everything about oppression into enemies, I say it’s pretty bad education. Here, have an article on “well-intentioned misogyny” and labeling. Oh, and there is a part two that basically agrees with what I say in general in this article.

Calling people “racists” essentializes “oppressors” as a category, that is, it creates a sort of substance of racism that’s put into people and makes them racists. In effect, it defines the person by their behaviour and attitudes. However, all these “racists” are normal people in addition to that, and racist or sexist or other oppressive behaviour can happen from otherwise levelheaded people.

It is also used to reject all oppressive behaviour on individual persons, as it is assumed that racism is caused by racists. Contrary what you may think, this is not a truism. You can’t just reject all that is wrong on individual people, be they racists, sexists, rapists, etc. What needs to be done is not to ostracize or condemn people, but to correct racist, sexist, etc., behaviour. No oppression is the action of any one individual. Sure, a given person can decide to actively harass or attack or fire people from marginalized groups, and that is wrong, but they likely wouldn’t do it if there wasn’t a pre-existing structure of oppression. But even once such more spectacular cases of violence and discrimination are accounted for, we end up with a big system where everyone can effect discrimination and cause tiny oppressions, unwillingly and unconsciously more often than not.

The essentialization of “racists” or whatever ties in with the myth that we have somehow reached equality, that racism, sexism and so on are no longer problems. If only racists can cause racism, then we rejected all the blame on an imagined group. However, basically no one will actively say they are racist — the word is so loaded. As such, since racism is caused by racists, and since there are no/few self-avowed or open racists, racism doesn’t exist anymore. QED.

But as we know, this equal society is nowhere to be seen, and it is not only because we don’t see all the “racists” and “sexists” who cause this. A lot of discrimination is the result of deep incrusted biases and mental structures — the very existence of the race categories for example, or of gender as a system, or of “meritocratic” structures where merit is defined by privileged classes. Some oppressive results are not done by individuals, such as in institutional racism or sexism. No one individual is to blame for the fact that legal sex change requires effective sterilization almost everywhere. “Oppressor” categories are not coherent either, as cissexism exemplifies: trans* people are at the receiving end of oppression from trans-exclusive feminists, from people from the LGB”T” movement who don’t merit the T, from the religious or socially conservative right, from the bureaucracy and from other people at random.

There is a version of this that not only works against the cause, but is oppressive in and of itself: blaming racism, etc., on “crazy” people. In addition to doing everything else I’ve already said, especially rejecting the problematic behaviour on an Other, it works from the assumption that people with mental health disorders are dangerous and reinforces their oppression. This is very frequent when misogynistic mass shootings occur. By questing for psychological problems which may have motivated the killers, journalists and others create a fracture between “crazy” and “not crazy” acts of misogyny, instead of perceiving murders as the direct consequence of our gender-system, as the full, violent application of misogyny pushed to its limit — as a proof by absurdity that our society is messed up. And by exploiting mental health (not misogyny) as the cause, it reinforces totally invalid fears and dangerous attitudes against people with mental health issues. It moves the issue from the real problem (misogyny) to another object (mental health) which is mostly unrelated.

Of course, when I say not to blame oppressors, I mean it in the abstract. There are people who actively work for a worse society, and others who could make it better but whose inaction is complicit at least (#politicians). There are people who take pleasure in oppressive behaviour and who will not give away the least amount of privilege. I totally blame the government and individual bureaucrats for some of the nonsense I go through for my name change, and trust me to blame the people who harass me for harassing me (be that sexist or transphobic harassment, because I get both). Yet though these people are to be blamed, even blamed personally, for the specific bullshit they create, oppression as such precedes them.

Blame behaviour, not people. Fight oppression, not oppressors.

Transgenderism, History and Postcolonial Theory

I often fall upon discourses like “Trans* people have been around since humanity exists, they were here in the Middle Ages, they exist in many other culture”, and so on. The point seems to be that trans* experiences are real and valid, that it’s not a novel issue, in order to gain greater acceptance in society (which is right, of course).

Now, obviously, the binary gender-system we know is not the only one that ever existed, and even in societies without strict, binary genders, individuals have almost certain lived outside the norm. However, while it is useful in validating the real character of trans* experiences, the idea that “trans people have been here forever” is flawed. Transgenderism, as a specific phenomenon, is recent. It depends on a very particular view of binary gender and of its transformation or subversion. Forcing third genders and individual gender-variant people from other cultures into “transgenderism” is not only bad methodology, but it also erases the specificity of these experiences to assimilate them into Western contemporary categories and force our discourses on them. Not only does it not stand against postcolonial critique, but this is exactly what we ask people not to do with our experiences.

Trans*, transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, etc., are Western gender categories. For them to make any sense, first, there must be a normative gender-system where gender is taken as strictly binary and immutable, and linked strictly to a scienticized idea of sex as defined by a specific epistemology (cissexism); second, this gender-system must be broken by variant individuals, who understand their own experience in part as a subversion or rejection of it (transgenderism). The problem is in using these categories to describe experiences from outside this system. Assuming transgenderism as a phenomenon applies elsewhere appropriates and colonizes divergent non-Western (and past) ideas of gender to fit them in our own mould.

Putting two-spirited people or hijras, for instance, in the “transgender” category proceeds from the universalization of Western categories, including the gender binary. In effect, people from a third gender are only gender variant from our point of view. Within their own system, they exist as a normal category, they are not variant at all (which doesn’t mean they don’t experience discrimination — women are not gender variant, yet they are oppressed, hijras are oppressed too, thanks to the British Raj). Saying they are trans* or gender variant accidentally assumes that the gender binary is universal. Of course, it is true that Western binary discourses are dominant and non-Western categories are marginalized as a result of this, but we don’t have to perpetuate this.

One result of this Western hegemonic position is that the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) also studies of non-Western gender categories. It is good that they be studied, but it is completely symptomatic that non-Western people from categories we don’t have are forced (by Western people) into the transgender label. They may request the modern sex change technologies (SRS, hormones, etc.), but it is only an internal evolution to this preexisting category.

The “trans* have always been here” narrative works on an understanding of time that is, in effect, cyclical. As I see it, the underlying idea is something like this: the gender binary is something that was constructed, therefore there was a pre-binary moment, a sort of Golden Age of gender of which the imposition of gender or binary gender was the Fall, and we must aspire to return to the true, natural order of society by rejecting the binary. This conception is similar to feminist accounts which assume a universal patriarchy working more or less the same everywhere, a claim now worthy of rejection (Butler, 2006).

The assignation of modern categories to people in the past is not valid from a methodological point of view, as it transposes present notions of gender in the past, often based on insufficient evidence. It is problematic from several points of view. First, there is a risk of using our idea of gender as a system and using it in the past. This is what made us believe wrongly that Vikings were male: we found swords in tombs, and assigned the skeleton as male. However, osteological study of the skeletons proves this assumption to be false, as about half the warriors in Viking expedition were actually female. For years, people used modern gender categories to inform the past, and arrived at the wrong conclusion. I don’t know if it has been done with trans* people, but it is a potential danger.

Another issue (and I’ve seen this one, in fact, with trans people) is the confusion of variant gender expression or roles with gender identity. It goes something like this: Person A wore male clothes, yet they were assigned female at birth, therefore they are a trans man. Obviously, this fact tells us something about the era (if divergent gender expression was accepted or not, for example), but it is not the proof that trans* identities existed, only that people could have gender expressions and assume gender roles that were not in line with what society expected from them. I read here about the idea that Joan of Arc would be a trans man, and her eventual death, an event of gender policing that marks the end a period of acceptance of gender variance. I’m not an expert of Joan of Arc, but as far as I know, she only assumed masculine gender roles and gender expression. This is not really what trans men do today.

The same website assumes a medieval repression of gender variance caused by Christianity, as opposed to better acceptance before Christianity. Therefore, repression is the result of Christianity, and acceptance, the remains of pre-Christian beliefs. Increased repression and normativity is the result of the Church’s greater hold over society and, implicitly, greater acceptance would require the rejection of the Church. (Notice the cyclical movement: here, the Fall is Christianity.) Oh how I’m used to that schema… It’s like Edward Gibbons all over again, but for trans* people instead of the Roman Empire. People refer to that scheme all the time to discredit everything about the Middle Ages, yet it doesn’t really work. Christianity, though important, is not the only moving factor for society between 500 and 1500, and essentializing whatever is pre-Christian as immobile until destroyed by the Church denies the cultural autonomy of most of the population.

As I see it, some forms gender reversal and the like were better accepted in the Middle Ages, or at least it’s my opinion as a medievalist who doesn’t work on that kind of stuff. This is well exemplified, I think, in Boccacio’s Decameron, II, 3. In this short story, Tedaldo, on the road, encounters an ostensibly male abbey. For reasons, they end up sleeping in the same room and in the same bed. Yet the abbey starts behaving sexually, which Tedaldo doesn’t like as “unnatural”. Perceiving Tedaldo’s disgust, the “abbey” put Tedaldo’s hand on “his” chest — or rather, her chest, where Tedaldo senses breast. Tedaldo once reassured, sex happens. There was absolutely no mention of anything wrong or worth mentioning in the fact that she was assuming a male presentation. Only potential “sodomy” was thought as wrong. Examples like this only show that a woman presenting as a male was not necessarily scandalous, at least in litterature. The opposite can be true as well, at least in ritual circumstances, with men disguised as women (Davis, 1979).

Anyway. I digress.

I identify two projects for trans-minded historians or historical comment:

  1. Participating to the feminist project of understanding, in their own specificity, different ways gender was organized as a system, but with a different focus or emphasis for identifying non-binary gender categories;
  2. Searching, in other cultures, for fluidity or variance of individual identities with reference to this particular gender-system (within or without it), and understanding

In effect, this calls for studying the varied experiences of gender and gender variance, instead of questing for transgenderism as a universalized phenomenon. These projects still validates the experiences of trans* people, without colonizing those of third gender people elsewhere or misrepresenting the past. It is a call for recognizing all different experiences of gender as true, valid and specific, instead of assuming all identities without our own idea of the gender binary to be trans* by default.

Works cited

Davis, Natalie Zemon (1979). Les cultures du peuple : Rituels, savoirs et résistances au 16e siècle, Paris, Aubier-Montaigne.

Butler, Judith (2006 [1990]). Gender Trouble, New York/Londres, Routledge.

Comments on Assisted Reproduction Barriers

Sometimes, I read the news. It generally ends badly.

So this morning, I found out that our government, on grounds of austerity (…), plans to cut funding for assisted reproduction. What exactly this will mean is up in the air. They talk about setting limits, and so on, but it’s interesting that, according to the article, the program costs $70 M and they plan to save… $70 M. Not making this up. These must be very solid limits if they bar… everyone.

In fact, it’s pretty typical. We live in a (world-wide and national) climate of “austerity”, and the government is making cuts across the boards, because apparently we’re in a financial disaster or something. That this specific program would be cut is not unexpected, as the current Minister of Health and Prime Minister had both opposed the program of free assisted reproduction. I will leave to others the discussion on “whether we can afford it”. Assuming the question makes sense, in my opinion, it would be impossible to know for lowly citizens such as I. Government figures are generally more or less manufactured to reflect what the government wants to see. In this case, the government wants a financial disaster in order to justify its will to force austerity on us, so that’s what we have. Eh.

Even if we allow that we live in a catastrophic world of state debt, who are they to decide which women should have access to pregnancy or not? All the parties involved are straight men. This seems the mirror case of abortion. Why do you, straight male politicians, think you should be the people judging what women do with their body?

If that’s how they treat cis women, I can’t think what will be when uterus transplants for trans women become a reality.

Anyway.

Instead of doing a substantive article full of my opinions, I decided to read the news, even more news, to find memorable quotes to comment. (All were translated from French.)

In a memoir about this subject, in 2013, the CHUM’ fertility clinic said it noticed “a visible drift from case of medical infertility to a sort of social infertility.” (Source)

Here, “social” seems to be a way to discredit some reasons why people can’t access parenthood as not biological, constructed, invented in people’s mind, or following from social realities (and not from “Nature”). The idea seems to be that only medically infertile women, who are so for biological reasons, should have access to in vitro fertilization and the like.

“Biology” is constructed and social too. What is or isn’t “biological” or “medical” is determined in a specific epistemic context. In practice, here, this means that doctors are the only ones who can say something is or isn’t biological, i.e. valid as a reason. Yet whether a cis-hetero couple is infertile or not is often hard to determine. Diagnosis, in many situations, is informed guess-work. Why should doctors, and only doctors, set the criteria for infertility? Why should they, as a result, be habilitated to say whether a given woman can or cannot carry a child?

This medical criterion doesn’t seem to allow for same-sex couples, or only ambiguously so. It also has the implication that unless you have a medical diagnosis, you can’t have or bear a child without penis-in-vagina sex. As an asexual woman who wants children, I would find it unpleasant to be forced to have sex in order to have children. I don’t think I would give “free and informed consent” to sex if the state forced it upon me to have children. I would be forced — by the state — to have sex to achieve parenthood, even though the very idea of having any kind of sex or such intimate behaviour makes me very anxious. Of course, the state also forces trans people to become infertile if they want legal recognition, so it’s not applicable to me personally, but I’m sure other people, cis or trans, gay or straight, asexual or not, will have similar negative reactions to sex (sexual assault survivors for example). Is it really right that you must have sex to have access to parenthood? Sex and raising children are very different things and are not necessarily related (as non-procreative sex exemplifies).

But it’s not over. The same memoir

expressed that infertile couples were far from the clinic’s only patients, as it saw a stream of single women, women whose husband is abroad, gay couples, even women who wanted to carry a child for their daughter. (Source)

So here, we have a policy with the effect that lesbian couples have access to motherhood. And they don’t even mention we exist. We’re just erased. Homosexual couples are mentioned, but only male couples with a surrogate mother, mostly because some celebrity is doing it. It’s absurd. It’s absolutely impossible to know what will happen to us.

By the way, I had a very hard time to find anything anywhere about lesbian couples. Mostly straight and gay male couples. Really, people?

Oh, and another thing: you won’t save $70 M out of a budget of $70 M by creating barriers for marginal and exceptional cases such as those mentioned.

However, Mrs. Kieffer Balizet [of the Quebec Association of Infertile Couples, ACIQ] says she is conscious that a revision is necessary to clarify “grey areas”. Which ones? The recourse to in vitro fertilization by male couples helped by surrogate mothers, amongst others. “We are ready to collaborate with [M. Couillard] on a certain number of adjustments.”

[…]

In a recent press release, the ACIQ insisted on a selection criterion which could exclude single women and homosexual couples : diagnosed infertility. (Source)

This is an article about infertile couples reacting to the gay celebrity who is having children through a surrogate mother. Such lack of solidarity is sad. Later in the article, they say that lesbian couples asking for artificial insemination are fine because they don’t cost too much. Great, but 1) the focus on “medical” infertility is strange, as I said earlier 2) the case of male gay couples with surrogate mothers is really much the same.

At least, as a trans woman, I’ll be infertile before long, if I’m not already. Technically, my hypothetical future girlfriend and I would be eligible.

Once upon a time, people had children. Today, they have parentality projects. This language drift illustrates rather well the technolofic and technocratic chasm at the bottom of which the natural act of giving live is falling.

A child is not, has never been and will never be a consumption good, like, my car, my kid, my cottage… Since some parents-in-becoming are not intelligent enough to understand it, we need clear barriers. And a generous and loving suppleness in their application. (Source)

Okay, so the fact that we use long abstract words is significant of the fact that we like long abstract words as a society, I give you that. However, preparing when and how one would have children is a project about becoming a parent. It’s exists “since the dawn of time”. Really, we didn’t invent any of this. Although we have more effective techniques today, fertility drugs are not a novelty (just like procreation techniques). The Romans did it, Medieval penitentials mention them (IIRC), and so on. Whether they worked well or not is irrelevant: what matters is that the idea that they could control if and when they would be parents was already on their mind. In effect, they had “parentality projects”.

We should strive for a world where meaningful and important experiences such as parenthood should be accessible to all who want it. It’s not a frivolous desire like having a new car or a cottage. It is something that structures one’s whole life AND one’s place in society.

And clear barriers with generous and loving suppleness are an antithesis.

Oh, and there is no need to naturalize “the act of giving live”. How is any more or less “natural” than anything else? What’s this “nature” anyway?

When he was Minister of Health, Philippe Couillard [now PM] was opposed to free access for all. He judged that having a child was not a right, but a privilege. (Source)

That’s very true. It’s a privilege. Straight privilege, at the very least, which you exemplify. (I’m sure that’s not what Couillard meant when he said privilege. It was just too easy.)

It’s a political and social choice, explained [now ex-minister Bolduc], adding that it pertains to the political authorities to find the balance between everyone’s needs. (Source)

This was said at the time when the program was put in place, and it’s also very true. People talk as if funding assisted reproduction means less of other health services. It’s not what’s going on. This is a social choice, a statement that everyone can access the full experience of parenthood (or as close as possible). It reminds me of what Sir Humphrey, of Yes (Prime) Minister, said of government programs: “You don’t fund them for doing work but to show what you approve of. Most government expenditure is symbolic.” (« The Patrons of the Arts », Yes Prime Minister s. 2 e. 6) Of course, I want effective policies and expenditure, not symbolic wastes of money, but the point still stands. Government money means as much as it does.

All the same, saying that it deprives other people from “essential” health services is besides the point (oh, and it… doesn’t do that). And how are they more “essential”? The effects of being a parent on one’s life are certainly comparable in their scale to that of many surgeries and treatments. What is or isn’t essential is very subjective.

***

In a way, what the final policy will be doesn’t really matter. Well, I’ll be outraged if they only allow it to medically infertile straight couples, but it’s besides the point. At least, adoption will be remain possible, so most of the experience would remain. I just think the discourses are sad, depressing, and oppressive. That is all.

A Trans FAQ: Let’s Help Google!

**TRIGGER WARNING: Transphobia — people are depressing sometimes.**

Here are the most frequently asked questions on Google. Let’s answer them!

transgenderGoogle

Is transgender a mental illness?

The quick answer is that no, it isn’t. You can’t “cure” a trans* person by psychotherapy or psychoactive drugs, and it’s not an indication of anything “wrong”. However, for health and legal purposes, it is treated as such, as the diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder. The normal treatment of GID is transition (at least for those who can or want). Under WPATH Standards of Care, you need a GID diagnosis to undergo medical transition. This diagnosis is also useful because it justifies insurance covering. All the same, it’s a bit of a fiction.

To be precise, it is frequent for trans* people to suffer from other mental issues, such as depression or anxiety, given that they often have repressed their identity for years and the discrimination and abuse they get during transition. Being trans is hard.

Is transgender real?

Pretty much, yeah.

Is transgender a sin?

I’m not a theologian or even a Christian at all, so this is going to be awkward to answer. I can’t really go in the details, having no idea what they are. But I googled this one for some minutes. My conclusion is 1) that the most antagonistic arguments seem to confuse homosexuality and transgenderism, which worketh not, and 2) that God apparently loves all Their children.

Christians discourses which distinguish homosexuality and transgenderism are generally rather sympathetic. I’ve heard of trans people with highly religious parents who expected hell from them, yet in fact, their parents were relieved to learn that their child was trans, and not gay. There are some very trans-inclusive religious people out there.

Also, listen here to homophobic preacher Pat Roberston saying that being trans is real and not a sin. It’s not the best answer or characterization of transgenderism (he understands this as “woman in a man’s body”, which is a topos I don’t like, he describes SRS as “[having] body parts amputed”, he questions “the validity of the statement” of being female), but hey, at least we’re not burning in Hell. After all, “it’s not for you to decide or to judge”. Coming from someone who said gay people could provoke hurricanes and that 9/11 was caused by “liberal civil liberties groups, feminists, homosexuals and abortion rights supporters”, it’s quite refreshing.

If you are a Christian trans woman and worried about what the Scriptures say, maybe you will find this blog post inspirational.

Is transgender natural?

What is “natural”? I usually think that whatever can happen is natural. Trans people exist, they “happen”, therefore they are natural.

Gender is socially constructed, after all. Many cultures have several genders — in fact, in Southern and Southeastern Asia, the modern techniques of transsexualism are used by traditional members of regional third genders. There are cultures (in the past at least) where female-sexed person assumed male gender roles as consecrated virgins. So our modern Western idea of transgender, although particular in its own way, is certainly not unnatural.

transgenderGoogle2

As we see, there is some repetition. The idea that trans people ar mentally ill comes back often on Google. *sigh*

Are transgender gay? gay or straight?

Some are, some are not. A trans woman (MtF) attracted to women is a lesbian. A trans man (FtM) attracted to women is straight. A trans woman attracted to both/any is bisexual/pansexual. Basically, it works in the same way as usual.

Sexual and romantic attraction is completely distinct from gender identity, even though gender as a system assumes compulsory heterosexuality and cisgenderism.

transsexualGoogle

Is transsexual offensive?

I’m gonna treat this as “Is the word ‘transsexual’ offensive to trans people”. The answer is, as often: if you’re not sure, ask. In general, the word is a bit passé, but it works. Even though I fit the label, I don’t really like it, personally, but others do. It depends. Still, it’s not wrong as a word, not in itself.

Is transsexual and transgender the same thing?

Not exactly. Transsexual is a subsection of transgender. Transsexual people are transgender, but the opposite is not true (just as a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle is not always a square). “Transsexual” implies some desire for medical transition, which does not apply to all transgender people (i.e. people assigned something at birth who identify within the other binary category). A transgender person who does not want any sort of medical transition would not be transsexual. Personally, I know few such people, and most of them prefered to identify as genderqueer, but then some transsexual people also identify as genderqueer.

Personally, I’m lazy. I just use trans for either, and trans* to emphasize that non-binary people are included (which is most of the time). They’re not perfect words, but oh well.

transsexualGoogle2

Is transsexualism a choice?

Quick answer: No. Transition may be a choice, but the dysphoria which make it necessary is not.

Long answer here.

Is transsexualism a medical condition?

It depends what you mean. I already discussed this above a bit with the idea that it’s a mental disorder. In a way, it depends how you define “medical condition”. As I said, from a medico-legal point of view, being trans is a medical condition that requires treatment, in the form of transition, but it’s really a bizarre idea.

What is true, however, is that transsexual people have to see doctors to proceed with their physical transition (hormones, surgeries, etc.). But then, cis women also go to their doctor to request contraceptives, and being fertile is not a medical condition. Personally, I consider transsexualism as a non-medical condition that requires medical supervision, like taking the pill or being a pro athlete.

transsexualGoogle3

Are transsexuals born that way?

Depends what you mean. We don’t know the “cause” of transsexualism. It’s rather hard to determine that something happens from birth, because newborn babies can hardly express their gender identity. Still, some children express from a very young age the desire to be a girl or a boy despite their birth assigned gender, and many trans people report knowing they were trans since childhood. But that’s not all trans people, it may not even be the majority. Some only see signs that they were trans in their childhood, but didn’t know how to understand them. Some don’t see any, I’m sure. The real decisive moment is puberty: some trans people report little or no dysphoria until puberty, and some people who lived as the other gender as children go back to their birth assigned gender at puberty.

However, the idea that transsexualism is determined at birth (i.e. that it’s strictly biologically determined) is the view that works best with the idea that gender is stable, and it’s the foundation of transnormative discourses: after all, if you’re “a woman in a man’s body”, you always were a woman, you just “received” the wrong body. (This topos is not one that is used by all trans people to describe their experience. I don’t like it, for one. It proceeds from a sort of spiritualist dualist anthropology: mind and body are two substances, and mind has precedence.)

Are transsexuals female? male or female?

The fact that the “are they female?” question comes first (and “are they male?” not at all) probably points to the fact that all attention is fixated on trans women, while trans men are forgotten. This is pretty typical, transmisogyny and all. Oh well. We get used to it.

Trans and cis women are women. Trans and cis men are men. Genderqueer people may be one or the other, both, neither, one at a time or something else entirely. However, trans women and cis men were assigned male at birth, and trans men and cis women were assigned female at birth. Also, all of them may be intersex. If you don’t know about someone, maybe you don’t need to.

If the question is about sex, well, trans people sexual characteristics can be all over the place, just as with intersex people. A trans woman may have a penis and male facial hair, yet have breast and low testosterone, for example. This shows very well how binary sex, and not only gender, is a construct.

***

And now, for the fun of it…

cisgenderGoogle

Is cisgender the same as straight?

No, it is not related to sexuality, as described above. “Cisgender” mean that someone’s gender identity matches their birth assigned gender. This has no implication on sexual or romantic preferences. A cis man can be gay.

Is cisgender a real word?

The fact that you’re using it implies that it is. There is no such thing as “real words”.A word is a unit of meaning. If you understand it, if it has meaning (even if you don’t understand it correctly), then it’s a word.

Is cisgender offensive?

Some people are offended when they are refered to as cisgender. This seems to correlate with transphobia.

Cisgender is a stupid term.

We need words to refer to things, to notions, to concepts. There is such a thing as being transgender or trans*. There is, as a result, such a thing as not being transgender or trans*. Therefore, we need a word to describe the opposite of being trans. Cis is useful for this purpose, because 1) it doesn’t imply that trans people are fake, as “real women” or “bio men” do 2) the latin preposition cis (on this side) means the exact opposite of trans (on the other side).

See also my answer to trans-exclusive feminist discourses against “cisgender”.