Question Eight: Why are people trans, and what does it really mean?

April 1, 2013 § 2 Comments


I hope everyone had a perfectly lovely weekend – back to trans issues! Panel bios here.



Question Eight

What are currently the common ways to view the nature of being trans? Is there a tendency, for example, to view it as “being an X in a Y’s body”; or as a pragmatic response to living in a very gendered society (i.e. one where there is a great distinction perceived between men and women, where appearance of gender and of acting in a manner appropriate to your perceived gender is important, etc); or as an expression of “radical queerness” (for want of a better phrase – basically I mean saying “fuck you” to heteronormativity). These being just a few examples of possible motives for adopting a trans/genderqueer identity. 
Is this something that trans people discuss amongst themselves, or are aware of in other trans people – the beliefs and the reasons behind their transitions? Do differing opinions on this ever cause friction or division?



Naith: Ha! Yes. Yes they do. Trans people are notorious for never being able to agree on fucking anything. To your main question – I think almost every trans person would come up with a different answer. There are as many different “reasons” or rationalities for being trans as there are trans people. Many do see themselves as “x trapped in y’s body”, many see themselves as suffering from a medical disorder, many see themselves as radical queers living outside the usual boundaries of gender. I think all these perspectives are perfectly valid.



Roz: There are silly people and bigots in the trans community, same as everywhere else, who think that their way of being trans is the right and  only truth. Most of us know that we only partly fit the available discourses – the best way of being trans is to enjoy the diversity of your brothers, sisters and siblings and say I am with  you. And just get on with your life.



Natacha: There are different opinions within the trans community, many seem to adopt an essentialising/essentialist view of being trans; ie claiming to be ‘born trans’. Personally I reject this idea, in particular since there is plenty of evidence that essentialist ideas on the difference between cisgender men and women are simply not supported by any serious evidence. Read Fine, C (2011) Delusions of Gender or Jordan-Young, R (2011) Brain Storm. So if there is little evidence to support brain differences between cisgender men and women then those who claim to have been ‘born trans’ are not supportable with any research. In the end the influence of culture will always be so strong that it will always be impossible to discount a significant element of social constructivism.

      One of the problems, however, is that society in general seems to view gender as essentialist, so many trans people seem to feel the only way they can justify themselves, and lay claim to authenticity and political liberation is by recourse to essentialism. There is little support for this assumption; lesbians, gay men and bisexual people do not claim essentialism and have achieved a significant degree of political liberation and social and cultural acceptance from political action rather than claiming to have been ‘born this way’. The problem is that claiming essentialism can lead to the assumption that trans people are in some way “abnormal” or “defective”, which has resulted in some psychologists claiming to be able to ‘cure’ trans children (on behalf of their parents) by using psychological torture methods similar to those tried on LGB people and found to be highly damaging and ineffective.

       One of the best ways of looking at it is to use Joan Roughgarden’s concept of trans people being a natural part of human diversity. This doesn’t essentialise us and allows for trans people to claim self determination. Ultimately trans people have to fight hard to assert their gender identities and as such dismiss social constructivism is to ignore our struggles. Roughgarden’s paradigm is supported by research by Marjorie Garber, who found that trans people have existed in every human civilization throughout history in some form or other.



CN: How long have you got?

Seriously – we know so very little for certain. We know that the ideas and behaviours surrounding gender and sex change across societies, across ages, and that throughout human history there have been people whose behaviour and appearance challenge the idea of a fixed sex/gender binary. There’s a tiny amount of preliminary neurological research trying to map any potential brain differences in trans people. There are libraries full of theory – some interesting, some ludicrous.

Do trans people discuss this amongst ourselves? Sometimes. Some people have made it their profession, some people would rather chew their own leg off than read Butler. Yes, there are plenty of arguments between people with different opinions, and different ways of living their lives – from the HBSers who don’t want to be associated with the awful genderqueers, to militant non-interventionists who believe that any surgery/hormone treatment is playing into a patriarchal idea of what sex and gender are. What are you going to do? People love to disagree. I think the best we can do is to spread information, research, as widely as possible, and encourage vigorous debate. That being said – I’m not overly fond of being told that I’m not trans by someone whose definition doesn’t include me – there’s no need to be rude.


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