A Taster

by Surya Monro


Issue 4
November 1998

Surya Monro
is the author of
Gender Politics:
Citizenship, Activism, and Diversity

Published by Pluto Press Ltd

I went to a conference recently and a transsexual activist asked me "What is the point of all these theories? How is this going to help us to achieve rights for transpeople?" It is true that there are problems with theory. It has to be rooted in your own experience. Each person's lived experience is the most important thing. Having said that, we all theorise, whether we are aware of it or not. We all try to understand things, to connect events, to build models of how reality works. Looking at theory can help us to see other possibilities, to free ourselves from oppressive ideas and what's more, to challenge those people and social structures which oppress us.

What theories are useful for creating a freer, more equal world for transsexual and transgendered people? I'll look very briefly at some of the ideas coming from two sets of theory: postmodernism and structuralism.

Postmodernism can be a bit difficult to get to grips with, because it sees everything as being relative, in other words there are no ultimate truths or realities and everything is made up by all of us in interaction with each other. Reality is seen as being fluid, multilayered, contradictory and full of irony. Postmodernism is terribly dodgy if you take it too far: clearly we all have very real needs and experiences. However it's useful for understanding some trans people's experience, which is of realities that change or are different from rigid male/female categories. Perhaps particularly the varied experiences of transsexual people in transition, intersex people and transvestites. And in terms of society, one can argue that 'man' and 'woman' as the 'only way to be' are made-up terms anyway. It's just that everyone takes them for granted to the extent that they actually believe they are real and that everything which does not fit is somehow 'wrong' or 'sick'. But it does not need to be that way.

Getting back to people's needs and experiences brings one slap bang up against the realities of the human need for an identity which works and which makes sense in the world around one. And of course, the rampant and insidious transphobia which trans people face from so many quarters. This is where structuralism comes in. Structuralism looks at the way social structures, for example medicine and education, affect people and also at the ideologies (widely held sets of beliefs) which impact on our lives. At present heteropatriarchal structures and ideologies are considered 'normal' in mainstream Western society. In other words, men and women are thought to have certain 'correct' roles, 'male' values are dominant over 'female' ones, homosexuality is thought to be less good than heterosexuality, trans is thought to be abnormal and so on - these ideas affect transpeople on the street, in the hospital, the workplace and the bedroom.

Coming back to postmodernism, what the fluid multiple realities present us with is more choice and the option of working towards a better future for all people. But this needs to be structured by building models of reality which emphasise diversity, respect for all non-harmful means of self expression and identity - whether these fit mainstream ideals or not - and equality of all peoples.

Surya Monro is a PhD student doing research on Transgender/Transsexuality and emancipatory gender politics at the University of Sheffield. She would like to thank and acknowledge all the trans people who have so generously contributed to her work.

TOP Web page copyright GENDYS Network. Text copyright of the author. Last amended 21.03.99