A Difficult Week for Trans Rights 26.11.17
Since I joined Twitter a month or so ago, I've become aware of the vitriol about trans and non-binary rights. Effectively you can boil the debate down to one side battling for its own existence, while the other side attempts to strangle this possibility at birth. It is a seismic debate. It is effectively deciding whether we stick to only two core identities, forged at birth and continued thereafter, or whether we accept that the gender binary is not enough as we currently know it, that humanity is potentially much more complex than a fixed-at-birth A or B.
The coverage in the news, I admit, makes me so uncomfortable that I don't know how to debate without feeling self-disgust. The main counter argument seems to involve the hypothetical danger of letting transgender women into women-only spaces. The damage we could do to other women. What am I supposed to say? Plead that I'm not dangerous? Or perhaps not plead anything. Better that I go with the counter-narrative and pretend I don't exist as a trans woman at all. There is no trans. There is only A or B.
I could try to sound informed, about how Argentina has trans-friendly legislation and no incidents have occurred. Or do I get sucked into the maelstrom of the most recent news? The young Labour party trans woman Lily Madigan , for example, and the furore over her application for a training programme for women. Or do I get all statistical about all the young people who are rejecting the gender binary? But you can read about these things in greater depth in The Guardian. As my line-manager would say: don't re-invent the wheel, Gina dear. Just do your fucking job.
What is my job? I'm here to shed light from my own angle, and so, here is my own angle, my step back to gaze at the bigger picture.
In the 1970s, a debate began within feminism about a segregated gender binary: there are only men and women, two identities decided at birth. Let men live their lives within patriarchy; let women opt out in a new kind of feminine society. Segregation, division, permanent, irreducible, unbridgeable difference. Many feminists adopted this position, most famously post-Lacanian Luce Irigaray.
Another feminist, also with associations to Lacanian thinking, called Julia Kristeva, thought differently. She wrote something in 1979 so ahead of her time that I can't paraphrase it, I am here simply to pass on the message:
Then there are the more radical feminist currents which . . . make of the second sex a counter-society. A female society is then constituted as a sort of alter ego of the official society, in which all real or fantasized possibilities . . . take refuge . . . As with any society, the counter-society is based on the expulsion of an excluded element, a scapegoat charged with the evil of which the community duly constituted can then purge itself . . . Does not feminism become a kind of inverted sexism when this logic is followed to its conclusion?
A third generation is now forming . . . In this third attitude, which I strongly advocate – which I imagine? – the very dichotomy man/woman as an opposition between two rival entities may be understood as belonging to metaphysics. What can 'identity', even 'sexual identity', mean in a new theoretical and scientific space where the very notion of identity is challenged?
I think Kristeva was pinpointing two things that matter today. Firstly the debate we're seeing now is part of a vision among some based on exclusion, of a disempowered position that seeks to invert rather than challenge the status quo of patriarchy. Secondly, and increasingly, of how gender is witnessing the tipping point, with gender as a spectrum, as the growing numbers of trans and non-binary people coming out suggest. What it means to be those loaded terms of male or female, on which our society is based, has concurrently to be more receptive, and more inclusive, of complexity and diversity. Because complex and diverse is what we are, all of us, and the labels that we've got barely cover who we are.
PS My gratitude to Paris Lees whose defiance on the twittersphere in defence of trans rights is wonderful to see