28 March 2010

Judith Butler gave me gender euphoria & all I got was this lousy blog post.

I just had one of those "Eureka!" moments when something you've been mulling over for years shifts in a big way.  It's like the first time I understood the double slit experiment in particle physics.  It was so simple and yet so difficult, like a yoga pose that you can't seem to muscle in to.  There's all this work that you have to do - it's action, it's yang energy, it's whatever you want to call it - but what's important to not lose sight of is that all of that outward force is just to make you strong and flexible enough to achieve the pose by submission.  Suddenly you fall into it rather than shove into it.

I'm in the process of the most intensive research and thesis writing of my life. I'm exploring femininst theories of transsexual women's experiences and the way that these theories are reflected in medicine, psychology, and society, as well as trans women's theorization and explanation of their own experiences.   I was skimming a scholarly article and came across a quote from Judith Butler, whose work I intend to analyze, but which I have not yet read or frankly even accessed from the library.  The quote, from her 1990 book "Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity," argues that gender overwrites sex and is as follows (as quoted by Schrock, Reid, & Boyd in Gender and Society, Vol 19, No 3):  "perhaps is was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all'."  Now this is only a fragment, and it's presented in a paragraph that looks at a number of Butler's ideas and presents partial quotations.  Therefore, I should point out that my response isn't so much to the article or to Butler's idea which seems a bit out of context, though I can't be sure without the original text.  The point is more about what this triggered for me.

I was momentarily, for less time than it takes a thought to fully form, apoplectic.  First of all, the sex/gender difference has taken years to establish and articulate from Harry Benjamin, M.D. using them interchangably in his landmark "The Transsexual Phenomenon," to post modern sex/gender/sexuality and/or feminist theorists differenting between the two.  Basically, that sex is body and that gender is socialized performance of behaviors attributed two which of the two versions of socially accepted bodies we live in.  The idea that a post-modern feminist would come and say that there's not only no difference but that it's all about gender would seem to invalidate transsesxual experience because one can choose to embody different gendered behaviors without transitioning one's physical sex.  However, I 1) don't think that's what she meant and 2) at least for the moment don't care because that's when it hit me:

THERE IS NO GENDER.  Not in any concrete, measurable way.  There are behaviors we've arbitrarily classified as masculine and feminine and then arbitrarily attached to male and female bodies, respectively.  Sure, gender is still a useful term because it describes a set of behaviors that have significance in our culture.  But this doesn't happen in other instances.  For example, there is no linguistic way to describe the set of expected behaviors attached to race, yet these clearly exist (basically as racism and racist stereotypes).  I've had articulate African American friends with advanced degrees told to stop "acting white."  If their peers were telling how to act based on their biological sex, we'd refer to those behaviors as gender, but here it's based on race and called....nothing.  (Clearly it's also fucked up.  The idea that there's a way to act white, or male...back to the apoplectic place I go.)  There is no word, which is odd because essential differences in mental and physical capacities based on race were in play  and shaping the law up until my parent's generation (and sadly linger in lots of places today).  Still, there is no way to describe the set of behaviors expected from a group based on a born trait of race, while we describe the gendered behaviors of a born sex.

This would have flown right past me years back when my understanding of sex and transsexuality was rooted in a patriarchally enforced binary sex system where it was natural for girls to be feminine and boys to be masculine.  My first encounters with gender non-conformist transsexual people was substantially more confusing than gender non-conformist people who maintained their birth sex.  Something along the lines of "why become a woman if you want to be a butch woman?  Why not be a man?"  I learned to unravel sex and gender, and even view both as continuims or dimmer switches rather than a binary variable.  But tonight, I moved from "We're born with a physical and a mental sex which may or may not align, as well as a gender which is seperate" to "we're born with a physical and mental sex that may or may not align, and then we behave."   The idea that gender is socially created and performed is one I've believed all along, but I couldn't see the forest through the trees.  I thought we had a *real gender* somewhere deep inside and had to learn to express it.  I think there's just a real *person* that we have to learn to express, and may struggle to do so when it flies in the face of convention, and that goes far, far beyond gender.

Still, as long as we're in a world where we're expected to choose I'll fall in line.  As I said earlier this week, *my* gender....is glamour.  ;D

your hairy, Virgo, masculine-bodied, gender-transcended Transit Faerie,

1 comment:

  1. I finally got around to reading this post which I have had flagged in my phone for quite some time. Excellent commentary!