Absent Subjects: Feminist Discourse and Trans Masculinities
B.A.,M.A., Sociology Research Student, University of Leeds
|Dr. Hines is the author of "TransForming Gender: Transgender Practices of Identity, Intimacy and Care," published in 2007 by Policy Press ISBN 978-1861349163||
In this paper I seek to explore the relationship between feminist theory and trans masculinity. I will begin by noting how the early silence within feminism around trans male identities, shifted to virulent denouncement during the 1980s and 1990s. The paper moves on to explore plural forms of feminism, which have begun to take a more diverse approach to gender and sexuality. I suggest that this latter framework offers the potential for opening up both a theoretical and an embodied place for trans men within feminism. Finally, I address recent work on trans masculinity and propose that feminist analyses of gender and sexuality take account of work being developed from within transgender studies.
My key argument is that feminist theory proceeds to develop a line of enquiry that is inclusive of the voices and experiences of trans men. I will chart the ways in which feminist thought and writing has related to trans masculinity from the 1970s to the present day. To build my argument, the following theoretical strands will be chronologically addressed; gay theory, radical feminism, feminist analyses of sexuality, postmodern feminism and queer theory, and transgender studies.
As well as discussing these theoretical areas, I will also draw on the initial findings of my own research with trans men over the past nine months. Here I would like to point out that my research is not purely concerned with male experiences, nor only with the relationship between gender diversity and feminism.(1) Rather, this is is the area that I choose to focus upon in this paper, due to the relative absence of work that addresses the relationship between feminist theory and trans masculinity.
During the 1970s British and American feminism applied the concept of 'woman' as a fixed and essential category, which differentiated against the particularities of 'man'. Gender diversity fell beyond this binary framework and feminist writing was notably silent in regard to transgender identities for most of this decade. At this time however, gay historians and activists were adopting an anthropological approach in their writing and began to document what may now be seen to be examples of early transgender practices.(2) Research conducted in the 1960s and 1970s concentrated its gaze on non-western gender diversity, which however, was largely interpreted as a personification of homosexuality. Gender diverse cultures such as the berdache tribe in North America were the focus of such studies, and their members were perceived as gay men and lesbians rather than as transgender men or women.(3)
The majority of this work focused upon the gender diverse identities of genetic men. Katz (1976) was one of the few writers to discuss the transgender experiences of born women. Paralleling the fixing of a gay identity onto transgressive Native American biological men, Katz labels gender-crossing born women 'lesbians'. His discussion of 'passing women' between 1782 and 1920, portrays trans men as lesbian feminists and problematically translates a western experience onto a local culture:
At this time gay theory was guided by the political motive of affirming a visible history by countering the silence around early gay and lesbian experiences. Further, it aimed to provide a positive model by showing that, in contrast to western society, gay men and lesbians in other cultures lived as equal and established members of their communities. However understandable these aims, such work has ignored the distinct histories of gender diverse people by assimilating their identities into a gay and lesbian, and feminist narrative.
The publication of Janice Raymond's thesis The Transsexual Empire in 1979 established a radical feminist perspective on transgender which affected the dominant feminist position. As Sandy Stone later remarked:
Raymond's argument is concurrent with her biological determinist position, through which sex is largely dependent upon chromosomes and thus is fixed at birth. From this perspective gender is also linked to biological sex. The 'transsexual empire' of her title refers to the medical framework of doctors, surgeons and psychiatrists, whom she holds responsible for 'producing sex role stereotypes'.(Raymond, 1979:5)Although Raymond's denouncement of trans women has been widely cited, her polemic on trans men may be less well known. Raymond's premise that transsexuality is a genetic male practice, created by a patriarchal medical system to construct servile women, is disrupted by the presence of trans men. In attempting to dig herself out of this theoretical hole, Raymond locates trans men as a:
Raymond misses the point that past invisibility of trans men is a direct consequence of the medical profession's negation of trans masculinity, as illustrated by Stoller's assertion that '… transvestism in women is so rare it is almost nonexistent'(Stoller, 1982: 99)(4).
While Raymond theorises trans women as 'deviant males'(Raymond,1979:10),trans men are located as treacherous women:
Sixteen years after its publication The Transsexual Empire was republished with a new forward by Raymond. The purpose of this update seems to lie in Raymond's wish to address the developing field of transgender studies. The decade and a half between the publications witnessed great developments both in relation to the lived experiences of trans people and in terms of theoretical discourse, much of which was being written by trans academics themselves. With particular reference here was the increased visibility and activism of trans men during this period. Raymond however, remains unmoved by such developments and repeats her denouncement of trans men as 'the tokens that save face for the transsexual empire'(ibid).
In 1997 Sheila Jeffreys offered explicit support for Raymond's position in her essay Transgender Activism: A Lesbian Feminist Perspective (1997), which refuelled the radical feminist attack on transgender. Jeffreys' key point of contention is directed at trans men. She states that trans men are a 'modern invention'(Jeffreys, 1997: 68), displaying a startling lack of ahistoricism, which ignores past transitions, such as that undertaken by Hermann Karl as early as 1882(Cromwell, 1999: 98). Jeffreys however, warns that it is 'now imperative for lesbian communities to pay attention' (ibid, my emphasis) and continues:
Much of Jeffreys essay focuses upon autobiographical writing by trans men. She shows how traditional accounts highlighted bodily dissatisfaction, which she interprets as '… a hatred of femaleness, not surprising in a woman hating culture'(ibid).As she notes however, this element is less prominent in contemporary male trans writing. Although Jeffreys seems to accept the earlier narratives, which focused on negative body-image, what seems to alarm her is the self determination of many of today's trans men. Moreover, Jeffreys argues that these positive stories actually work to encourage male trans practices. Jeffreys cites Zachary Nataf's reflections on his pre-transition identity as a butch dyke, described by Nataf as:
Jeffreys reads Nataf through a simplistic causal framework by proposing that Nataf would have continued to live as a lesbian had he not come across the trans culture within which writes. The implication is that if the positive experiences of trans men hadn't 'contaminated' Nataf, he would still be 'saved' as a lesbian, allbeit, as a 'problematic' butch.
Feminist Analyses of Sexuality.
Jeffreys call of caution to her radical feminist sisters however, may have not been without currency. It was during the late 1980s and 1990s that the divisive rhetoric of feminist separatism can be seen to give way to a more considered enquiry into the questions transgender raise for the non-trans who 'came of age' during this politically high charged era. Here I am not suggesting a collapse of transphobia within feminist writing. As the previous discussion illustrates, anti-transgender sentiments were strong within dominant strands of feminist thinking during this time. It is beyond the scope of this paper to document the diversity of feminist and lesbian movements that emerged from the fractured women's movement in the late 1970s and 1980s. Suffice to say that by the late 1980s it was more appropriate to talk about a range of femin isms, than to discuss a uniform body of feminist thought. Further, the alternative sexualities initiated by lesbian subcultures of this time were influential on the unfolding of feminist perspectives that attempted to move away from the positioning of transgender as suspect.
Feminist thinking during the 1980s and 1990s became increasingly focused upon sexuality and sexual practice. Initially heterosexuality was the focus of discussion however, rather than ebbing into a heterosexual/lesbian divide, debate was at its feistiest in and amongst lesbian communities. As such, feminist concerns over sexuality became dominated by fierce debates around lesbianism and lesbian sexual practices, with the key protagonists being radical feminists and lesbians associated with a range of sexual subcultures. Radical feminists characterised lesbianism as a political position which challenged the patriarchal institution of heterosexuality, as demonstrated by Atkinson's mantra 'feminism was the theory, lesbianism the practice'(quoted in Jackson and Scott, 1996: 282).However, for other lesbians, emphasis was firmly placed on erotic agency as illustrated by Califia's sentiment:
The data analysis of my own research is in its early stages. However, preliminary findings resonate here by showing how feminist debates of the 1980s and 1990s cut through many contemporary trans male narratives. In this way, many of the men I have interviewed have articulated lived experiences of what has become to be theorised as the 'sex wars'.(5) Many have talked about their involvement in feminist politics, though have been precise in pointing out that they were not 'radical feminists'. Likewise, many participants have related their former experiences within lesbian communities, though have qualified this by saying they identified as 'dyke' or 'queer', rather than as 'lesbian'. Several participants have talked about their involvement during the 1980s and 1990s in alternative lesbian communities and have explicitly discussed arguments with other feminists and lesbians over issues such as image, access to community spaces and censorship.
While not suggesting that trans men as a homogenous group have a pre-transition identity as either feminists or lesbians, my research has identified a recognisable theme of trans male involvement in feminist and lesbian communities. While some participants have discussed the hostile reactions of feminist and lesbian friends as they came out, others have talked more generally of 'moving on' in their lives and forming new friendships networks.
Several participants however have strongly articulated an on-going personal and professional involvement in feminist politics and lesbian communities, and continue to describe their sexuality as queer. These participants have resolutely argued for a link between transgender and gay and lesbian political campaigns. My point is not to argue that trans men are 'unhappy lesbians', nor to suggest an undercurrent of progressive thought around transgender within dominant feminist and lesbian politics. Rather, findings show that despite a dominant transphobic rhetoric, many trans men were able to find a home, and indeed, were often key players, within alternative feminist and lesbian communities before, during and, in some cases, following, transition.
Alongside the lived experiences of queer communities, academic feminists were also beginning to argue for a politics of diversity. Moreover, many of these academics were writing as a direct result of their involvement in queer subcultures. Hollibaugh (1989) argued for a feminist theory of sexuality that embraces difference. She proposed that alongside analysing sexuality as an academic issue, feminism consider the lived embodied experiences of sex in order to fully examine the diverse meanings of sexual desire and practice.
Vance (1989) proposed that a feminist politics of sexuality incorporate the gendered meanings of embodiment by examining the ways in which the body and particular sexual identities and practices are socially and culturally constructed. For Vance, the remit lay in theorising gender and sexuality as distinct though overlapping categories. Importantly Vance highlighted the necessity to recognise and include difference both in relation to the meanings given to subcultural sexual symbols (for example, images, practices or performances) and to understand that such meanings are often different to dominant ways of seeing.
Like Vance, Rubin (1989) identified feminism's fusion of gender and sexuality as inherently problematic. Crucially for our purposes, she drew attention to the ways in which the influence of medicine, psychiatry and psychology have encouraged a discourse which both individualises sexuality and dislocates it from its historical and social significance. Thus, following Foucault (1978) Rubin argued that sexuality, as well as gender, is constructed through medical discourse, which ascribes different meanings to the sexed body at particular historical moments.
Although these writers do not specifically address transgender, their work provides a framework for a more nuanced understanding of trans identities, where erotic desire does not automatically fit preconceived binaries of either gender (man/woman) or sexuality (homo/hetero). Additionally, this perspective enables the consideration of a range of transgender identities both in relation to dominant culture and to each other. In turn, this allows us to go beyond the prevailing notion of trans people as a homogenous group and provides room for the recognition of distinct trans identities.
Postmodern Feminism and Queer Theory.
The influence of postmodernism and queer theory upon some feminist writing during the 1990s led to a more explicit engagement with transgender. These approaches have emphasised difference and, rather than following an assimilative route, have theorised difference as politically progressive. Those who argue for a feminist engagement with postmodernism, view the analysis of difference as a requisite theoretical tool for the development of feminist theory. For example, Wright states that:
Again, this model allows us to move beyond the concept of a unitary trans identity and to recognise that difference cuts across a diversity of transgender subjectivities. As such, this framework may be utilized to enable the increased visibility of trans men, not only through analysing the specificities of trans male experiences in relation to trans female, but also by exploring particular subject positions within trans masculinity.
Queer theory has argued against the notion of 'authentic' gender or sexual identities and thus carves a space for the theorisation of trans identities and sexualities. For example, queer theorists have argued that traditional lesbian and gay theory and politics have been exclusive in their attitudes towards those whose identities fall outside of that which is deemed to be 'correct' or 'fitting'. Confronting the construction of 'normal' sexualities has also meant challenging the notion of heterosexuality as 'natural', or as Stephen Whittle puts it; '… the hegemonic centrism of heterosexism … is being challenged to justify itself or to 'get out of the kitchen'(Whittle, 1997: 202). Queer theory then, views all gendered and sexual identities as socially constructed, and aims to dissolve the naturalisation and pathologising of perceived minority identities. Thus, both postmodern feminism and queer theory have celebrated transgender as a site which radically challenges the binary systems of gender and sexuality.
Such accounts however, can be critiqued for negating the material experiences of transgender. In this way, MacDonald (1998) argues that postmodernism's assimilation of transgender has a tendency to ignore the specific subject positions under analysis:
Judith Butler's seminal text Gender Trouble (1990) marks feminism's influence upon queer theory. Here, Butler examines how a binary gender model has restricted feminist understandings of sex and gender. She argues that the ways in which feminists, and social scientists in general, have understood 'sex' as constituting the biological male or female body, and 'gender' as referring to the social meanings attached to such bodies, has disabled a more effective understanding of gender as distinct from sex. Butler believes that an understanding of gender as separate from sex holds the potential for a greater diversity of masculinities and femininities.
Further, Butler argues that we should be wary of seeing 'sex' as a purely biological characteristic. Rather, sex is as socially and culturally a determined concept as is gender. Butler's ideas, alongside Rubin's, can be incorporated into a contemporary understanding of transgender that accepts a multiplicity of gendered identities and representations, which are unfixed to the sexed body
Rather than privileging the body as the site of sex, Butler employs the body as a tool through which gendered acts acquire their social and cultural meanings. From this understanding, gender acquires its meanings through repetition, which Butler discusses as 'gender performativity'. Here, drag and lesbian butch/femme identities are cited as key examples of gender performativity.
From a perspective which views all gender and sexual identities as socially constructed, transgender identities may appear no less irregular than those of genetic men or women. Likewise, trans male identities may be articulated alongside those of trans women. However, Butler's focus on performance related trans identities unwittingly privileges certain identities above others. Thus whilst Butler's analysis may be successfully utilized for performance related identities, such as the drag king or queen, it falls short of incorporating trans identities which are less vocal or visible. In this way Jay Prosser (1998) argues that Butler presents a selective reading of transgender. Prosser's key contention with queer theory is that it has bypassed the importance of embodiment and as such, negates material trans narratives. Consequently, Prosser cautions against the 'universalizing of trans'(ibid:5).
I would argue then, that queer theory offers valuable insights into the ways in which some trans cultures radically challenge traditional gender and sexual binary categories and, as such, provides a useful vision of deconstructed genders and sexualities. However, used in isolation, this theoretical model is limited through its tendency to negate the lived experiences of individuals and render non-performance-orientated trans identities unaccountable.
Within the recent field of transgender studies, trans writers have articulated their own stories and have engaged with the theoretical debates of feminism, postmodernism and queer theory, as well as providing an explicit critique of medical discourse. Transgender studies explores the different meanings brought to the term transgender and reflects a diversity of theoretical positions. Hence much debate within transgender studies has been concerned with addressing the contradictions between deconstructive analyses of transgender and the representations of integral identities which are articulated in many transgender autobiographies. The discord between deconstructive and corporal understandings of gender have long been central to feminist thought and as Heyes (2000) has remarked, illustrate the connecting themes of trans studies and women's studies.
In Female Masculinity Judith Halberstam (1998) illustrates how until recently trans men were barely recognised by medical discourse and were marginalised within social and psychoanalytic accounts of transgender practices. Importantly for this paper, Halberstam illustrates the ways in which many trans identities and practices overlap with those of other gender and sexual subcultures, as has been indicated by my research findings.
Zachary Nataf in Lesbians Talk Transgender (1996) and Leslie Feinberg in Transgender Warriors (1996), employ a postmodern mix of historical and critical analysis, political critique and autobiography to articulate a range of trans male gender and sexual identities. Although Nataf explores gender as a performative concept, she does so by drawing on a range of lesbian subjective experiences in relation to the expression and interpretation of gender. In Feinberg's book, the author is placed at the centre of the narrative and the analytical investigation of trans histories frequently traverses with Feinberg's personal gender history. Feinberg's later book Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue (1998) vocalises a diversity of trans gender and sexual identities, and calls for a inclusive trans politics, which is able to dually celebrate and specify difference. Further, Feinberg importantly incorporates the variables of age, class and ethnicity, as well as gender and sexuality, into the discussion of trans identities and subjectivities.
This latter selection of work draws on postmodern deconstructions of binary gender categories and reflects queer theory's celebration of difference. Importantly, Nataf and Feinberg's articulation of subjective trans experiences illustrate how these theoretical areas may be used without the loss of subjectivity. At the heart of the developing field of transgender studies we find divergent and contesting meanings of gendered and sexual, social and embodied, identities. To feminism, transgender studies offers the renewed challenge of theorising diversity and tolerating difference. To postmodern and queer theory, transgender studies articulates the importance of a grounded theory, that not only celebrates the deconstruction of existing gender and sexual categories, but which also pays close attention to the actual voices and lived experiences of difference. From this juncture, I follow Heyes' argument that 'it's no longer enough … for feminist readers to dismiss the projects of trans theorists and activists as epiphenomenal to feminist discourse or even queer theory, or to view trans studies as an optional extra in the studies of sex and gender'(Heyes, 2000: 170).
Writing about the invisibility of trans men within feminist theory, Jason Cromwell argues that:
From my research findings I would also add that trans men are primary feminist subjects because many identify as feminists. Thus, in a dominant culture which stresses post-feminism, we can hear feminist ethics being strongly reiterated by many trans men. In talking about identity, politics, values and relationships, all of the men I spoke with articulate masculinities that are distinct from traditional notions of male power or privilege. Their experiences of masculinity have often been discussed from a feminist perspective in relation to interactions with genetic men or relationships with women. Here a central theme expressed has been the wish to stand aside of hegemonic masculinity, or in other words, not to behave or be seen as 'typical' men. While it is important to live and be perceived as male, a key area of concern raised has been to live and be understood as different men. In conclusion then, I emphasise that it is imperative that contemporary feminist analyses of gender and sexuality take account of the voices of these 'new men'.
Citation:Hines, S., (2002) Absent Subjects: Feminist Discourse and Trans Masculinities, GENDYS 2002, The Seventh International Gender Dysphoria Conference, Manchester England.
Web page copyright GENDYS Network. Text copyright of the author. Last amended 09.11.08