Mar. 10th, 2010

From an email conversation about gender politics.

If I were in the same situation now, and didn't know how happy I'd been for the past two and a half years, I'd be reticent. I would feel like choosing to get surgery would not only be my personal choice, but a statement to those around me that I considered surgery a right thing to do and accepted the political system that defines people based on their genital configuration. And that would make me uncomfortable. In one sense, I don't have the option to accept or not accept that political system; it is no matter what I think about it, and the decision to fit into it in different ways while working to alter it is a personal choice. But it's one I periodically feel called on to defend, and I am glad I made the choice at a time when I did not have to defend it in this way.

In some ways that makes me go ugh, because if it's a correct choice, shouldn't I be able to defend it?

Heh, this will be the starting point for a long digression of my own. Until recently (recently being the last three-fourths of a year), if asked about gender, I would have said, first, that the gender binary should not exist; and then, if pressed, that I had not thought much about it. But two encounters brought into view the problems of this position.

The first was a discussion with a local acquaintance about his dislike of trans people (there's no way to put it that's both honest and kind to him). While I think he was rationalizing his dislike of specific people, I didn't have a good response to his argument: namely, that trans people reinforce the gender binary. (So when you do learn to defend the choice powerfully, let me know how!) However, the encounter did bring to mind the possibility that there is a psychological aspect to the position of anti-dualism: that its vehemence is evidence of the grip that the binary has over people, unreasonable adherence engendering unreasonable opposition. You do not passionately decry something which has no grip on you. And I have seen the anti-dualist position itself veer into judgmental and exclusive behavior, for instance in the move to exclude the transgendered from feminism. This opposition to the binary might itself be a form of living under its power.

(By the way, you came up in an earlier portion of that discussion as an example of why gender studies are worthwhile.)

The second encounter was a conversation in which a friend brought up casually how she had found it difficult to learn to be a woman when growing up in a mostly male environment. Presumably many people think in such terms, but this was, no lie, the first time I had met with them. And this was a woman who, to the best of my perception, had drawn only good from the concept, so that I was assured in an instant that "learning to be a woman" is not only intelligible but potentially beneficial. An unreasonably anti-dualist stance would claim that such learning is mimicking, that one learns to be a woman as one learns habits, not that one learns it in the sense that one learns a skill or a subject. (And how else would it be intelligible for a woman to speak of learning to be a woman?) If someone draws nothing but good from their (concept of their) gender, I am not justified in telling her the concept should not exist.

This brings me back to the argument to which I had no good answer. I have wondered why I have difficulty finding a middle ground between the argument itself, which claims that transitioning is just a blatant manifestation of the gender binary, and the powerlessly relativist answer, which claims that the only thing that matters is the happiness of the individual, refusing to note any broader significance. Now, in the articulacy provided by a rich conversation, I think that this difficulty arises from a move which I find deeply distasteful, namely a move away from decrying the binary. (To note the difficulty of this move, note that it is usually presented weakly as a matter of pragmatism, in a line such as "No one of us can eliminate the concept of gender, but we can work to dismantle it from the inside." The line moves the conversation forward, yes, but what does it concede?) So that perhaps I should not just present my task as that of dismantling the gender binary, but also of creating a better binary. Which is also to say, creating a binary, period.

I do not have an answer yet, but here is a sketch of an answer, written to some undetermined "you". Yes, transitioning involves the concept of a gender binary, but such a thing as a good binary is possible, and such acts as transitioning may help to create it. For the moment, set aside anti-duality as an unvarying principle, and consider what a good binary would be. It would not be exhaustive, but rather would have ample middle and outer ground. It would have varying importance: one person may find it useful only to make others' descriptions intelligible; another would find it a significant attribute, but hardly the most so; another would find in it guiding principles, and draw strength from its various aspects; yet another would step forth into their life with a vision of a new womanhood or new manhood. The misunderstandings produced by this variable importance would be a fact of life. Finally, it would not be tyrannical: having found oneself somewhere within this binary, one would not then be forced to live at that same point forever. The possibility of transition is essential to the idea of a good binary. You could help to create such a binary.

And yes, in the meantime, continue to dismantle the old one.



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