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Transgenderism, radical feminism and Julie Bindel

September 28, 2013

 My sources come from The Oxford Student and The Guardian.

**EDIT: Julie Bindel has since arrived at the uni and we have had an open discussion about the subject. Some slight edits have been made in accordance with my new understanding of the nature of her objection, though by and large it seems I read between the lines of the above articles fairly accurately.

Julie Bindel is a radical feminist whose views I am wary to hear next week**, when she arrives at my university to give a guest lecture. Like other radical feminists before and alongside her, she holds one particular view which I have no choice but to disagree with emphatically. I have seen her interviews and she strikes me as an articulate and generally well-reasoned individual, which is why it is mysterious that she should choose, of all things, transsexuality as a symbol of all that is wrong with the world of gender. In a source cited above, she starts by making some comparisons with race, arguing that gender cannot be natural.

She states that “Race is all a social construct,” like gender, so you can’t “black up” and say that you are really black. Is that not a contradiction? If race is a social construct, then you should be able to claim to be black if you are white, without even needing to black up. I agree that sounds insane, in which case we must accept that race is not a social construct. Racism is a social construct, and culture is a construct (though one which people value and should not be preached against), but race is not. The way you look affects the way people respond to you, and so shapes your life. You could argue that this should never be the case, but it unfortunately seems inevitable. As such, when you say “race does not exist” or “transgenderism doesn’t exist”, you target the wrong people; people who need the engagement with their own race (or culture) and gender (identity) in order to feel whole and overcome obstacles they may face later.

Bindel says that transwomen cannot claim the oppression faced by cisgendered (“normal”) women. It is absolutely true that you cannot claim to have been oppressed as a female in the past if you were never female in the past. That’s common sense. However, once transwomen do choose to become female (bear in mind, they are doing so usually knowing that their lives will become more difficult), if they are successful in being recognised in their acquired gender, they will be subjected to oppression. If they are not successful, then they will be subject to a different kind; fire from both sides, as neither males nor females accept them into their fold.

Transwomen join feminist groups, not because they have childhood or teenage experience with oppression, but because they have current experience, including (sadly enough) the oppression that happens from within feminism by means of the gender police. They are women and they are oppressed for being women, albeit a different kind of woman. They need feminism. In any case, feminism should not bar out people who have not been subject to the oppression of women, since if it does, it not only bars intelligent allies, but it stunts growth; what is the point of an educating movement that is only interested in preaching to the choir? Men are the ones who need to know about patriarchy and all that McGubbins, so not speaking to them will not solve any problems.

The comparison Bindel makes to aversion therapy (the therapy that sought to “cure” gay people) is misleading for a number of reasons. Firstly, aversion therapy was forced on unwilling participants. It was emotional bullying. It has never worked. Ex “patients” have generally regretted it, rather than generally not regretting it. Bindel said that the highest number of sex change operations happen in Iran, where homosexuality is illegal. She failed to note that this is because of homophobia, not trans acceptance. If both were perfectly legal, the rate would fall. As it is, these people are taught that they must be trans because being gay is wrong. They are being told that they are wrong, which railroads them into the wrong decision. I would like to ask, could Bindel’s point of view have the same effect in a different society – if we decided, universally, that transgenderism is a psychological issue, would we start to institutionalise people, for fear they might self-mutilate?

Think about it, we hate our genitals and our secondary sex characteristics. If no one will help us, we might remove them ourselves. I’ve thought about it before; get rid of them, go to hospital, recover, then it’s all over and I have a flat chest. I no longer think of this, now I have the promise that it will be done properly by professionals, sooner or later. The extent to which I want this is not to be trivialised. This is not cosmetic surgery for people who need to be perfect. I will be scarred for the rest of my life, and I honestly don’t care, as long as I can feel like I am finally male. It is disturbing, yes, and it certainly sounds psychotic, but as many others have pointed out, it would be an odd mental health disorder that was fixed by surgery. You may know that anorexics, who starve themselves compulsively because they have a mental disorder, are never satisfied with their weight or the way they look. Both affect the body and body image, but are fundamentally different.

I am actually sympathetic to Bindel’s claim that you cannot have a biological solution to a social problem, and that “natural” gender expression is entirely false, instead being nothing more than a construction. I have thought the same thing myself. The answer I came up with is that gender identity and gender expression are not the same; I have considered myself male for longer than I can remember, in a female dominated environment. I went to an all girls’ school and come from what I don’t hesitate to describe as a matrifocal family; my mum, while a regular housewife, to my memory was the main maker and enforcer of the rules.

One could try to come up with sociological reasons why I am the way I am, but most of the reasons will sound more like I should be an example of the opposite: a transwoman. The fact is that my gender is something I feel and have felt for a long time, to the extent where I cried with relief when I learned that there were options for me. No medical establishment gave me these insidious answers Bindel imagines; if anything, they were as reticent as her, and allowed me to lead them in examination of my own condition. I wish I had been taught about transsexualism as an answer to my problems (my depression, my self-hatred, my extreme disgust at my own anatomy) by people in an official capacity such as teachers. However, I learnt about it from a standard vlog posted on Youtube when I was 18-19. What a way to finally get an answer.

And how do I feel now, four years on? Happy, relieved. Ready to live. All answers Bindel cannot offer me with her assertion that I should not have acted on my dysphoria. She calls it a mental disorder, which a diplomatic person might consider mitigates her comments, since it takes the blame and the burden of choice off the shoulders of the individual. After all, something which gives you depression must at least be a mental disorder, if it is not a physical one, and gender dysphoria gives many people depression. The fact of the matter is, I needed medical intervention. If psychological intervention worked, you can bet they would have offered that first (they did, regardless). If this becomes the future, then so be it.

No, really. I think I would be a different person if you gave me a pill that made me think of myself as female, and that idea makes me uncomfortable, but better a happy woman than a depressed and trapped transman. Personally, I favour a happy transman, but that is not an option that Bindel and her fellows are willing to grant me. They assume I am “mutilated” and do not fully understand the extent of what I have undertaken. I consider my physical changes to be no more dramatic than the breast reductions undertaken by women who are informed by their doctors that the extra weight could give them back problems, or the preventative mastectomies undertaken by young women who know they face a future of near certain breast cancer. Yes, these are extreme, but they are current answers to far more troubling questions. They are all we have, and to be without them is to go backwards in time and condemn a surprisingly large group of people – larger than most people realise – to a life they have no wish to live. Often, they choose not to live it.

I think that Bindel probably is against surgeries like breast reductions, since if she is not, she is being inconsistent. If the issue is that one should not change one’s body for social reasons, she ought to be against all sorts of things; tattoos, piercings, botox, laser hair removal – the list is endless. We in the West live in world of surgery and intervention, and it is frightening how unable we are to draw the line between how much is too much. Obviously, if we are all striving for perfection, we are going to be disappointed, no matter what futuristic utopia we live in.

But transsexualism is inherently different. It is not a social construct, not a social pressure. How could it be? How, in a society that for the most part thinks of sex and gender as being inextricably bound, could you come to the conclusion that your gender and sex don’t match – unless it was ingrained? The same is true of sexual orientation. I see no evidence that it would occur to us to think of members of the same sex as attractive if it were not natural. Say it could be taught – who is teaching it, and why, unless it first naturally occurred? It would be useless to fight for the right to be something that nobody ever is or can be. Hence why there are no groups of people currently campaigning for the right to be legally recognised as ducks.

Whether we like it or not, gender holds weight of its own. Why would we perceive men and women as being different, right from the off, if there were no differences at all beyond the physical? I am open to the suggestion that many of the differences are constructed, but I think that if you are going to claim that all of them are, you had better turn up some proof.

My problem with Bindel’s way of thinking is that it is an example of what I call anti-liberal feminism; it looks as though it is overturning all the old patriarchal constructs and creating a new world, but it is equally as restrictive as those old constructs, because it forces a group of people which is separate from itself and has separate motivations to prescribe to the rules that it sets out. Anti-liberals can be very anti-choice in some aspects of their analysis of society (though “pro-choice” in the traditional sense, i.e., abortion), insomuch as they may not favour the use of clothes, make-up or, indeed, surgery as viable forms of self-expression, or at least not forms of feminine expression – to the extent where they may shun self-identified feminists who are on the opposite side of the coin.

It is the most inconsistent of all feminist stances, since the same people who are pro-choice in respects to make-up may be anti-surgery. Usually, an anti-liberal is only pro the “choices” that involve inverting the standard norm, like shaving armpits – making it equally as prescriptive as any other kind of body policing. In addition, this too is inconsistent, since the emphasis on the importance of inverting norms quickly falls down when faced with the ultimate inversion: transgenderism. Anti-liberal feminism (or “radical” feminism) does not, as other types of feminism do, simply attempt to remove undeserved privilege from groups of people who have had it for too long, but rather contributes to oppression of a group of people who are already shunned in the mainstream.

Shortly put, Bindel’s argument is out of its time – both too late and potentially too early. If we get to a point where over half of the population are having surgery that it never felt the need to have before, then we should re-examine the issue. At the moment, most schools of thought consider that the rising numbers of transgendered people is because of more people coming out, not more trans people being constructed by society. Take it from me, you don’t learn to be trans from a young age. You are forced to be cis from a young age, no matter how liberal your parents think they are and try to be. We just aren’t at a point where trangenderism is in the public consciousness enough to consider that it has its beginnings in social pressure. If you think that I have “upgraded” to manhood in an attempt to avoid the pressures of being female in a patriarchal society, the fact that the majority of trans people are transwomen pulls the rug out from under your argument, since they are obviously downgrading.

Bindel has no intention of being tyrannical, and in response to previous accusations of transphobia, has adjusted her more careless and flippant rhetoric to address her new, and angry, audience. It does not appear to be a personal tirade, examples of which we see from other more extreme radicals like Germaine Greer, whose description of transwomen as “men [who] mutilate themselves to become statutory women” in the introduction – not even the main body – of The Female Eunuch prompted me to put it down almost as soon as I’d picked it up (such a person is evidently incapable of making a reasoned argument). Yet, so far, Bindel is sticking to her guns about transsexualism as a concept because she believes so much that gender cannot be biologically defined. The question I want to ask is why radical feminists in particular need this to be the case. It is almost as if they think that, if they admit that men and women are naturally different, that means that one must be naturally superior to the other, and that as a result one might decide that men are the superior. Since I don’ t believe that men and women are naturally all that different, I’d like to flip that on its head; if you decide that there is some significance to people’s choice to be male or female (as distinct from men or women), you are the one who is deciding that biological sex has weight.

You see, it may not be about my “naturally” being a man / woman. Such things may well be constructs – gender is not a tangible thing that waits in the air to be caught in a net. We have no way of objectively defining it, and the only gender expression or self-expression we can possibly understand is our own. There are as many different types of trans people as there are people, but as for me, I have no objection to anyone attempting to argue that gender is a construct. I will say that what I have is natural desire to be male that I cannot explain. It is not an overwhelmingly burdensome desire, such as how mental illnesses like OCD create burdensome desires; indeed, I barely engage with my gender identity, unless I am forced to by anti-liberals (feminist or otherwise). It has become, simply, my natural state and I do not think about it – as I believe it should be. Most people do not have the stress of having to analyse their own gender and don’t realise that it’s not exactly a hobby of mine.

I am male, and I chose to be male. I did not choose to be a man. The characteristics I have may come from a number of places, but I can tell you right now that I do not make my characteristics to match my gender identity, largely because they naturally do not. I dislike football, and am not a big fan of any sport, or cars, or guns. I don’t prescribe to the very masculine ideas about the macho nature of eating meat. When I first started on transition, I tried to assimilate the traits I was taught were masculine, in order to fit in – before I realised how ludicrous it was to change my sex to match my gender identity, only to change my gender expression to match my sex. Instead, I am myself, and I am an unconventional male in many ways. It doesn’t matter in the slightest and there hasn’t been single decision in my life that I have regretted less, including all the most trivial decisions you could possibly imagine.

It is curious that I should prefer to be male when if anything I feel more connected to women compared to men, all the more so since undertaking sex reassignment. I simply am more at ease with gender expression in all its forms, including the expression of cisgender womanhood, because I am comfortable with myself now. I made a terrible gay woman, because I hated femininity, so therefore pretty much hated womanhood, which turned me off women, in the emotional sense.

Disliking being female is not the same as disliking being a woman. When I was a child I was happy enough, even though people occasionally “mistook” me for male and then corrected themselves, much to my chagrin. It was only when I starting developing at the age of ten (traumatic enough in itself) that I started to withdraw into self-hatred and disgust. No one on earth has ever given me a credible explanation for this outside of what is broadly recognised as “gender dysphoria” – no doctor, nor psychologist, and certainly no radical feminist.

Bindel, I imagine, does not completely trust the medical establishment, and is wary of its power over deciding what humans can and cannot be. By and large, I agree. Science works from evidence and evidence can be skewed, or worse, bought. The media can pick and choose what evidence it will take and this can come to run our personal lives by feeding us constant misinformation based on the studies of only a few – the original sources of which are hidden under a mountain of unhelpful speculation. However, this is one of the examples of the medical establishment allowing greater freedom of choice and reducing personal shame, in a way that it does not always manage. Compare to the BMI scale, which tells half the nation it is overweight when it is healthy, or the veritable army of scientists denying the existence of the G spot despite countless numbers of women claiming to have personal experience of it. So, from broad perspective and compared to other findings, the conclusions the medical establishment have drawn about transsexualism will get no criticism from me – though I’m sure there were teething problems, as there always is when “diagnosing” something new. It is true that we live in a culture that may over-medicalise and make physical problems that are social or cultural, perhaps because physical problems are easier to treat.

Say that the problem is partially cultural. If I hated anything about being a woman, in the social sense of the word, it was the constant condescension and sexual harassment which has more or less stopped since I have become male. This is one of the reasons why I am a feminist: having experienced it myself, I am under no delusions. I know it exists and I want it to stop. It is clearly a social construct, a negative one, an old one, and an unnecessary, unfair one. There is nothing to be lost from challenging it.

But it is not about being female. It is the indirect effect of being female: males are attracted to females; males are men (typically); females are women (typically); and the condescension of patriarchy is based in attraction, and therefore, possession. So women get the raw deal because they are women, but not because they are female. That is just the associated part. And, by some absurd twist, we use female characteristics to identify women so that we can (subconsciously) continue to patronise them. A society like that could do with less heteronormativity and more gender bending, since you can’t condescend women if you don’t even know which people are women and which aren’t.

Notice how I constantly draw the distinction between woman and female. Maybe people don’t need to be women; maybe womanhood doesn’t exist, any more that manhood. But female certainly does and male certainly does, and the reason that trans people fight for their right to be whichever they choose surely stems from the same place as Bindel & co’s insistence on the importance of women and femininity. To claim that gender (sex?) is not important and then to fight against alternative gender expression is contradictory.

By all means, don’t call me a man if you don’t believe in the concept – call me male, or a person who has chosen to by physically male, i.e., a transman. I don’t mind this. What I do mind, what I find frankly terrifying, is the idea that someone else’s “radical” notion of gender could strip me of my basic right to choose something which has made my life, not merely better, but possible. It is thankful that your average radical is under no delusions about the ineffectiveness of simply asserting one’s extraordinary opinions, and I doubt that Bindel and her kindred hope for anything more extreme than frank discussion on the subject.

More than anything, I resent the condescending assertion that it is my health and welfare these other people care about when they discuss matters that concern me and not them. Clearly, anti-trans comment comes from a political standpoint rather than a personal one, since if you are a reasonable human being you do not steamroll people you genuinely care about into making decisions they do not want. Nor do you ignore the rational and sane points expressed from them, firmly explaining that they know their own interests better than some an outsider who happens to be a radical. Current comments on transgenderism have frequently come from a position of scorn, or at the very least, dismissiveness, and are therefore not to be taken at face value, even if their manner of expression has improved in changing times.

I happen to know plenty of feminists, and I can say safely that very few of those in my age group, however radical they claim to be (in itself perhaps a dwindling tendency), have any strong objection to transsexuality. I wonder: is it a coincidence that those who do are frequently feminists from those older waves and eras? To start with, medical support and intervention has changed quite drastically since transsexuality was first officially recognised. It would be encouraging if someone would admit that, however uncomfortable it might be to acknowledge that one’s carefully constructed viewpoints might be due to something as pedestrian as one’s age or generation, there is a distinct possibility that radicals can be as easily subject the cultural prejudices of their time and background as anyone else. It is a changing world, and no one is free from the chains of convention.  Fussing over trans issues is more retro than new wave, and smacks of jumping on a creaky old bandwagon that even the band have vacated.

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2 Comments
  1. Thank you! The piece has been very divisive on Reddit, I must say… I suppose because she has done good work elsewhere, some feminists think this mitigates her poor speech.

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