Sunday, August 5, 2007

Gender identity and gender essentialism

A large part of my job involves deconstructing and explaining trans identities for the benefit of non-trans people who are, in some capacity, working with trans folks. While I’ve figured out a way to run these workshops without feeling like I’m vivisecting myself in front of a live audience, there’s a certain tradeoff that I’ve made. While I may be more comfortable talking about trans issues in front of a group of strangers, I am certainly less truthful to my own relationship with gender, and have lowered my expectations for what attendees think at the end of the workshop. One thing that speaks to both the protective structuring of my workshops and the ways I feel my education work falls short is the heavy focus I tend to put on understanding gender identity and gender expression.

I don’t believe in gender identity, that there is anything static or fixed about the ways we relate to our bodies and relate our bodies to other people. That is an incredibly hard concept to relate to a group of non-trans people who are focused on understanding some sort of unified trans identity that they can put in their pocket and bring with them to work. Nor is it a particularly useful way to spend the time it takes to explain when I have, at most, an hour and a half to turn a group of clueless wannabe do-gooders into solid trans allies. And that’s why I rely so heavily on gender identity when I’m teaching.

“Gender identity,” I say, “is how we feel about ourselves on the inside,” gesturing with my hands over my sternum. “Gender expression,” I quickly follow, “is what we show to other people,” spreading my arms so as to indicate the rest of the room. The implication, then, is that people dress a certain way to reflect an essentialized internal alignment and that, because we are all such good people, we wish to respect that alignment and the way it affects our appearance. My job, then, becomes teaching people how to be respectful of this arrangement. If I wasn’t trying so hard not to laugh, I’d probably vomit.

This conversation often completely ignores the historical and social constructions of gendered systems of power that make trans identities both necessary and inherently radical. Unless we have time to delve much, much deeper into conceptualizations and constructions of gender, it crosses the line from politically untenable oversimplification into outright lie. A lie that is non-threatening, respectful and stealing almost all agency from the trans people we are skirting around discussing. Strategic, for sure, but still far from an accurate reflection of how I feel. It would almost be palatable if these words weren’t just as often repeated within trans communities.

What does it mean that we’ve so eagerly embraced and internalized such a heavily Libertarian ideology formulated to make our grotesque bodies more palatable to those who force us into the radicalized margins while ignoring what makes our identities both important and powerful? In trans-only spaces, the debate so often and so quickly descends into conversations about what makes us the way we are, be it theories of when we are subject to what hormones in vitro, or how our limbic systems are so much more sophisticated than those of people who are not trans.

And, furthermore, I resent the implication that, with closer fetal surveillance, and further medical colonization of feminized bodies, we can potentially eliminate trans people, or that an MRI could become a diagnostic tool to tell if someone is “really trans.” It is in challenging thousands of years of history that we become powerful, in denying any static marker of trans-ness routed in medical ideology that we throw entire systems of power and domination into disarray.

Yet we always seem to be deferential to the non-threatening, telling ourselves that it is akin to survival. And while stealth is certainly the most comfortable way to live, from the point of view of someone who does not ever see herself having access to the ability to pass, it seems the lifestyle most devoid of agency. It is in the confusion, the looks, the laughs, and even the threats, that I realize my transgressions are meaningful.

On a personal note, this discussion scares the hell out of me. I’m starting estradiol valerate (an intramuscular injection of estrogen) as soon as I find someone to draw my blood and write me a prescription. How does that fit into an anti-essentialist trans identity? Is that a medicalized exercise in performativity? An injection of essentialized womanhood into an attempt to perform femininity without the feminine? Am I planting the flag of medical ownership into yet another trans body, or taking care of my own emotional needs? Is there a difference between any of the things I’ve listed?

I am a confused little wombat, dear readers. Please be kind as I sit on the dissection table and explain to you the flow of blood through my own heart.


gaurav said...

Uh, what does it mean to have a more sophisticated limbic system than others?

Rhetorical Tranny said...

I've heard some people make claims that they can never back up with the original research saying that trans people are trans because we have bigger amygdalas (two almond-shaped groupings of neurons in your brain that are part of the limbic system) and, by extension, are in some way better or more sophisticated than non-trans people.

gaurav said...

huh, I hadn't heard of a study that cited amygdala size as having anything to do with gender identity. Though there are other studies citing other parts of the brain as being responsible.


Rhetorical Tranny said...

Oh! Where have you seen them? Do you have links? I haven't tried particularly hard to track stuff down, but no one's ever been able to give me a solid source when I've pressed them on that kind of thing.

Bad Decision Maker said...

Those workshops sound really difficult to do.

I've thought some about essentialism and hormones and striving or not for "normal" identites/images around diabetes and fatness and what that means. There's less overt violence toward type 1 diabetics (it works differently with type 2s since there's a lot more blame with fatphobia/classism/racism etc) about this stuff than there is with gender, but I think there are some intersections if we can use a diabetes lens that is queer or a queer lens that is not ableist.

And you might want to check out these cyborg poems:

imogen said...

Here's a link to an article about that brain region stufy thing: