Sex, gender, politics – a brief inquiry (note 3)

What could it possibly mean to for someone, born with a penis, to claim, ‘I feel I should have a vagina’? Because that’s the bottom line; in order to convince me that a male ‘should have’ been born female (or vice-verse), I need to be persuaded that the person, having a penis, knows what it feels like to have a vagina (or, again, vice-verse), without having one, and this now appears to be beyond comprehension.

I am not a backward thinker; I have long supported gay/lesbian rights, and advocated justice for those who feel the need to adopt differing gender signifiers in their behaviors. But justice does not demand that I dumb myself down and put my brain on hold. The only thing we know of the opposite sex is gender – and gender is a social construct. Otherwise, we need to assume that physical sensations of the opposite sex can be experienced so directly and concretely – without actually living in such a body – that a person could recognize the comfort level of so living in that body as to be able to claim the need to live in it.

As I write that, I’m aware that the articulation verges on the incoherent. This is all nonsense; this was precisely the wrong turn for the transgender community to make. They are rhetorically relying on American embarrassment over discussing any sexual issue in depth, to put forward a claim with no recognizable ontological, epistemological, biological, or even psychological foundation. This is fantasy. This is, profoundly, exactly the wrong direction for the transgender community to take, in defining the real rights that justice demands for them.

(As to the recent issue concerning restrooms in Texas – if we, as some other countries do, had unisex public toilets, this wouldn’t be an issue. “What fools these mortals be!”)

The question is whether trans-gender identification (a social-psychological phenomenon) translates easily into trans-sexual identification (which would be a physiological-neurological phenomenon), and without better evidence and argument than we have had so far, I don’t see how this is possible. I emphasize the genitalia, because a truly trans-sexual identification would seem to hinge on the ability of a person to know, or at least have a very good idea, what it would actually be like to have the genitalia of the opposite sex.

There are important historical issues to keep in mind here. First, trans-gender identification has been around as long as cultural records can reach – in every culture that has kept records on such matters. So there is no arguing a real phenomenon there, and so arguing for the rights of the trans-gender identifiers is no great leap of conscience.

However, the move towards trans-sexual identification is a most recent phenomenon, and hinges on the odd conjunction of three apposite trends in the 20th century – the inherited legacy of equating gender and sex, which was widely distributed through common culture, making the distinction between the two a point of argument; the development of medical technology that allowed genital reconstruction and hormonal realignment; and certain theories in genetics that seemed to promise that not only sex but gender identification could be found to be genetically pre-determined. (Again, an important backdrop to all of this has been the long-standing American embarrassment over public discussion of sexual matters at all.) The efforts to derive sound argument and a coherent understanding of trans-sexualism from these intersections have largely failed, I think, and so the demand for its legitimation largely reduces to clamor about feelings and social conflicts that are more easily resolved when redirected back toward the rights of trans-gender individuals. In other words, the trans-sexual arguments actually over-complicate the discussion, and not, I suggest, to the benefit of the individuals involved – except of course when they can gather enough social pressure on certain institutions and persons of influence to make themselves annoying. But while that may win some small gains, I suggest it does them no good in the long run, since it only means that the real issues involved remain unspoken.

Let me clarify the point as simply as possible: I can well imagine arguing, politically or before the law, for the right of self-determination for those who feel, however impelled, a need to adopt the accoutrements and behavior of the opposite gender. I can’t quite imagine arguing on behalf of someone who, say, born with a penis, claims that he ought to have a vagina (or vice-versa), since there is no way for that person to know what that be like without actually having said genitals.

(Hermaphrodites are actually beside the point; they are the result of genetic or physiological dysfunction during maturation, and so have their own unique experiences.)

—–

But let’s consider this in relation to a similar, possibly related, phenomenon:

“Body integrity identity disorder (BIID, also referred to as amputee identity disorder) is a psychological disorder in which an otherwise healthy individual feels that they are meant to be disabled. (….) BIID is typically accompanied by the desire to amputate one or more healthy limbs. It also includes the desire for other forms of disability, as in the case of a woman who intentionally blinded herself. BIID can be associated with apotemnophilia, sexual arousal based on the image of one’s self as an amputee. The cause of BIID is unknown. One hypothesis states that it results from a neurological failing of the brain’s inner body mapping function (located in the right parietal lobe) to incorporate the affected limb in its understanding of the body’s physical form.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_integrity_identity_disorder *

1. BIID is recognized as a disorder because it generates unhappiness and may lead to self-mutilation. It also appears to involve a neurological dysfunction, although the research is incomplete. AS a disorder, it is one surgeons appear unwilling to cater to; it is a historical problem why it is surgeons became willing to cater to trans-sexualism, assuming that it also may be a similar disorder. (But of course, trans-sexuals are making the further claim that it isn’t a disorder at all.)

2. Let us imagine a case of BIID, wherein the afflicted person claims, not only that, say, his right leg is not his own, but that the right leg of a certain woman actually belongs to him. Should we try to convince her to surrender her leg via transplant? (Well, obviously that’s not what trans-sexuals are arguing – or are they? Not claiming a specific person’s genitalia, but certainly claiming right to possession of similar genitalia to those already existent for others.) Less extremely, should we allow cosmetic surgery to the man’s leg so that it appears in every way similar to the leg of the woman in question? That may be worth doing to resolve the man’s unhappiness; but it doesn’t mean that his BIID is not still a serious disorder.

3. But trans-sexuals are not simply expressing the sensation that their genitals-of-birth are ‘inappropriate.’ They are claiming that the genitals of the opposite sex are appropriate to them. This is where coherency falls apart. How could they possibly know that? Genitals are not just attractive things dangling in theoretical space; they are rich with a whole host of sensations and physiological responses. These sensations and responses one must know – not simply imagine – in order to claim the right of possession. A woman claims she should have a penis instead of her vagina. Which penis? the blood-engorged erect in copulation? the shriveled in the chill wind? The irritated with pressure from the bladder needing to urinate? The one accidentally caught in a hastily closed zipper?

4. We don’t know if there might be some genetic causality to BIID. But let’s allow the claim that there is some for gender identification. That only means that gender identity is a predisposition towards adopting certain socially constructed behaviors. It is not a determination of sexual being – that determination is given over to the XX and XY chromosomes. And the genetics of that are quite clear.

5. The medical technology of cosmetic surgery is a luxury. It can be used to alleviate psychic pain in certain cases, yes; but it neither arises from, nor generates, any rights.

—–
* See also Gordon Cornwall’s fascinating discussion at: http://phantomself.org/amputation-desire-biidxenomelia-and-the-human-experience-of-self/

—–

After composing the above, it occurred to me that the most important film on this subject happens to be one of the worst films ever made – “Glen or Glenda,” written and directed by the master of bad cinema, Ed Wood. Promising to be an exploitation film about the then new trans-sexual surgery conducted in Sweden, it is really a boldly auto-biographical revelation of Wood’s own trans-gender transvestism – despite being a heterosexual who had served in the Marines during WWII.

Important, because it makes concrete this distinction between the trans-sexual and the trans-gender – and also because, in its own (frankly hilarious) inept way, reveals the real pain that people suffering such identity confusion have long experienced in this culture. (Wood, alas, eventually drank himself to death.)

How can a film so amusingly bad nonetheless score such crucial points? That’s an aesthetic issue. For now, let us give Wood his due, and admit that he put his finger directly on the real problem here: Trans-gender identification and trans-sexualism are not equatable. The suffering of each is no doubt real; but they are not the same, and confusing the two may do more harm than good, politically (and possibly psychologically as well).

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