Jules Joanne Gleeson
Artwork: © Zoe Avery Nelson, used with permission.
2018 brought the question of “recognition” to the foreground for British trans people, as the Gender Recognition Act (known amongst the clued-in as the GRA) came up for review. Much of the country’s transfeminist movement mobilised to urge people to fill out an online consultation form. The results of these energies were a grand non-commitment from the government, with government officials first in Edinburgh and then London announcing that no substantive changes would be made until yet another round of “consultation.”
I’ve no interest in recapping the mayhem that surrounded this prolonged ordeal, or spitting the bile I was left boiling in as this “national discussion” became an anti- climactic exercise in haters attaining a national platform.
It will suffice to say that trans politics seems to have been left in a traumatised state ever since, with attacks by the media and a determined band of activists becoming a truly everyday experience.
It’s in the nature of trauma not only to toughen the skin, but narrow horizons.
We need now to remember what a victory would look like on our own terms, not those which have been foisted on us by the phobic onslaught.
The continual attack of press media smears, social media harassment, and gatekeeping legislation can threaten to eclipse frank discussion of our conditions, and the very process of transition which defines our lives.
To push back against being treated as suspect, an account which seems sturdy and “bulletproof” can appeal even to activists usually otherwise immersed in developing critical outlooks on social oppression. We have to overcome this urge, as easily defensible as it can appear for tactical reasons.
When responding to phobia, we have to accept that there will be no final, definitive, scientific proof which will validate us through refuting our foes forever. It is not in the nature of the conflict we are too often forcibly immersed in to see a good faith resolution. So our focus should instead be on a collective survival that refuses the terms of debate offered to us by our enemies at every turn.
In previous essays, I have argued that transition is empowered by community-led “social reproduction” (to use the Marxist-Feminist jargon), which transphobes will very rarely even attempt to understand in their own terms. Able to see us only as confused and deluded victims of “ideology,” the day-in-day-out work of cultural fabrication and mutual support that allows for trans life is a matter which our enemies are unable to grasp. They fail to even realise what they’re missing.
I still believe this: reactionaries (from churchmen to career feminists) can’t appreciate why it is that transition appears a worthwhile project for an increasing number of people. They are not a threat to us at the point where transition is most crucially fostered; they are not even attempting to disrupt the enculturation of new trans people where it would be most harmful.
However, this isn’t to say that the slog of opposing transphobia’s resurgence in public life will not have its own exhausting effect on those committed to attempting to stem or reverse this tide. We should worry not only about the psychological impact of this work, but also a certain conceptual damage.
A kind of determinate negation is risked by continual engagement with phobes: transphobic feminism can’t be defeated through responding to each of its claims in turn. We have to actively resist this closure of our thinking, and work to keep open channels of solidarity, and communication across contexts, in order to retain the kind of collective power required to weather the global storm of the political right’s ascendancy.
What we need, at this point, is a means of thinking that moves beyond mere refutation, into one that thinks through the existing damage to us, and asks how to embark on a collective process of recovery.
But we also need to consider the underlying question of recognition that has been opened up by this affair.
Recognition by the state will always be fraught, and provided unreliably.
The case of Orashia Edwards shows this plainly. A bisexual man, Edwards faced harsh scepticism from the Home Office for his relationships with women. Even in the face of Jamaica’s local newspapers reporting on the case, Edwards was scheduled for deportation, only being released and allowed to remain after a sustained solidarity campaign.
It strains belief that the Home Office could truly have been oblivious as to bisexuals existing. Instead, this episode shows the limits of the “recognition” the state affords us. In the context of the “hostile
environment,” the same logic of expulsion has been extended against many more heterosexuals.
The state offers recognition only ever partially, attempting to secure itself docile subjects, with easily digestible and reliably governable conduct. We should be wary of this.
Slogans such as “trans women are women, trans men are men” in this context carry a double edge. With ignorance about the realities of trans lives so pervasive and widespread, it can be tempting to provide a straightforward line around which a serious number of people can be expected to rally.
But there is a risk in providing a “simple answer to a complex question”, especially as a defensive move in the context of battling phobias. Do we really want to boil our lives down into a form that makes them appealing to, and appreciable by, the state?
A better approach, at least in polite and non-phobic company, is to bring the full complexity of our lives back into view.
One way of achieving this (which I’m personally invested in) is reclaiming the “transsexual” from its current association with a medicalist and conservative view of transition as pursuing management of a hard-wired brain disorder.
The number of self-declared “transsexuals” has not diminished all that much during the current “Tipping Point” era, during which cultural production and media attention means mass understanding of transition has become much more widespread (for better, and often worse). Self-identified transsexuals have often enough written collective letters and begun relatively popular YouTube channels professing their worldviews.
Elsewhere, I have called this tendency “trans realism”.
1 Trans realism is characterised by a dogged belief in a fixed and immutable bodily sex. (I suspect that the proponents of this view would not find being classed as “realists” any kind of condemnation). They refuse all the lessons of phenomenology, and scoff at any deconstructive move towards physical forms that presents them as pliant, or plastic.
This form of “transsexual” is usually hostile towards non-binary identified trans people, and views categories used by the medical profession much less critically, often vesting hope in the work of cisgendered “experts.” Considered justified due to the irreducible differences in brain composition, “old-school transsexuals” generally oppose transphobia as being unscientific. While themselves generally undergoing extensive efforts to reshape their physiques, all the while they accept the claims of the bio-medical model that transsexuality is fundamentally a disorder.
Self-described “transsexuals” of this kind use the term as one of distinction: they are those who will follow through a linear pathway of transition, overseen by a fully medicalised procession of best practices, and often consider “trenders” who transition in a fashion not according to these strictures as a far graver threat than the blossoming movements peddling outright transphobia.
Has the term “transsexual” become forever tarnished and outmoded by this minoritarian tendency? Should we abandon the word and let them have it? I don’t think so. Another view of sexuation, and therefore of transition, is possible.
What if we took a view of transsexuality which was entirely at odds with this one? What if we used the concept as an expansive one, intended to capture a whole host of experiences, defined solely by their serving to resexuate us? What if we reclaimed the term “transsexual” to describe all those resisting predominant processes of sexuation?
Sexuation here means not exclusively some physical, physiological, or bio-chemical shift: taking cross-sex HRT is an equally transsexual act to changing your name from “Ben” to “Holly” (or vice versa). Sexuation is not an anatomical process, but the meeting place of our physical forms and social ideals (which are never truly separated).
While many of us do undergo radical bodily transformations in response to our transsexual impulses (be they surgical, endocrinological, or whatever combination of the two), it’s an error to draw a strict line between, say, the racing heart caused by leaving the house in our chosen gender’s appropriate attire for the first time, and years later, preparing for top surgery to improve our everyday quality of living. Transsexuality as I define it describes every point of experience resistant to the sexuation originally imposed on us, and which we participated in under conditions of coercion.
The “true transsexual” is anyone who has felt an urge to abandon the gender position they were expected to occupy. In certain circumstances these impulses can be lived out fully (and our agitation ensures this is true for more and more people). In other cases, transsexuality is forcibly hidden, sublimated, pursued out-of-view.
It’s to be expected that for any one transsexual, these circumstances are prone to radical change: perhaps we cannot express ourselves as we are living with a parent who we expect would disown or murder us, or an employer who would fire us, or the practices we find fulfilment in are still outlawed. Those repressed in this way are no less transsexual, and still live in circumstances defined by our frustrated impulses.
This view of the transsexual would be even more inclusive than the current usage of the word “transgender,” which is an umbrella term into which people can self identify. Transsexuality, by contrast, would fully include those who are still years or longer away from being able to declare themselves anything of the kind, those who never will, or those who once did — but have now chosen not to offer any clear, explicit account of themselves.
An expanded view of transsexuality can acknowledge the differentiated stages that so many of us pass along, refusing the denial of ourselves that boiling down our experiences to political battering rams inevitably entails.
The stakes in this are as follows: when under fire — as the trans community clearly has been — an understandable urge to simplify, boil down, and purify arises, in order to make a pithy and effective rebuttal. But this reflex is one we have to ensure does not lead to exciting the unsightly, the shameful, and that which has shaped us even as we have come to feel “so over it.”
When Eve K. Sedgwick writes in her essay “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay”
2 that gay men feigning consistent masculinity are in denial of their (probably effeminate, bullied) boyhood, we should take this to heart as transsexuals. We should refuse the same process of pruning our autobiographies.
What we risk in refusing to claim the transvestite, the hermaphrodite, and all other indeterminate figures is not only a weakened political coalition. It’s also a denial of the trajectories we ourselves have more often than not passed through: the assurance and conviction we’ve gathered when attempting to represent ourselves generally follow years, or even decades, of pain and conflicted feelings, phases of experimentation and testing the waters, detransitions, retransitions, and shifting from one set of pronouns to another, then back again.
Once we’ve reached a happier state, once it has Gotten Better, once people tell us “I’d never have guessed...” and no longer seem to be humouring us, it is tempting to attempt to cover our tracks. To deny that the scared teen or twenty-something picking out too-heavy fabrics in a charity shop was us, and will never have nothing to do with us.
To declare ourselves transsexual is the departure point for this deeper, fuller sense of solidarity: to acknowledge that we have passed through worse circumstances than those we have reached now, and that those in direr positions can never be abandoned in the name of expediency, or a punchy comeback.
This kind of reflective solidarity work is not a process best reduced to any simple slogan. Too much can be lost in blank declarations. And we have to strive to keep the tangle of our experience in sight, even as we encounter those intent on using one stage of the process to invalidate the next.
To turn our backs on our former selves is to reject the exact processes through which trans people rebirth ourselves.
Any moment of denial of this is the worst possible outcome when battling phobes. Just as any reliance on the state is a concession to the very thinking that underpins the bulk of radical feminist thought.
Again: the approach I argue for is to acknowledge that we have lived messy and often painful lives. That whatever relief and joy we have found through transition can only ever be bound up unclearly with the confusion and agony of gender being imposed upon us from birth. That our clearest and most explicit accounts of ourselves are layered over a haze of turmoil, confusion, and repetitive self-interrogation.
Underlying the existing face of straightforward attachment to gender is a continual work of repression and excision, ranging from symbolic acts, to formative repetitions, to singular acts of gratuitous imposition.
We can’t allow the attacks on us to jettison the basis for solidarity between us, or to deny our own lived histories.
Nor should we give a single inch to the state. While forcing the state to recognise our terms of embodiment may be vital for our survival, are these efforts ever the last word in our terms of enfleshment?
Survival means survival on our own terms, and without flinching from the aspects of our lives that seem unpresentable when operating in a warzone.
As harsh as our era might seem, it will never be time to spurn the freakish, to deny our scared former selves, or attempt to distinguish ourselves from those cast as the most unsightly, the criminal, the migrant, the freakish. We can only separate ourselves from other transsexuals through a violent attempt at straightening out that which will always be bent.
Let us not allow our enemies to force us to shy away from the awkward, the complex, the complete mess, or inchoate. Let’s instead forge a new politics of the transsexual, a flexible form of solidarity that can weather the storm still to come.
- Jules Joanne Gleeson, “‘What Is Transsexual Realism?’ An Embedded Inquiry Into A Nascent Counter-Counter-Culture,” in Queer and Trans (Counter)Cultural Marxism (Historical Materialism 2019: Socialism in Our Time, New York, 2019).
- Eve K. Sedgwick, “How To Bring Your Kids Up Gay,” Social Text 29 (1991), 90