Trans and culture

Some people are gay. Get over it, as they say. More precisely, some people are same-sex attracted, and “gay” is a useful cultural response to that, a way of containing and explaining the various effects same sex attraction has on people.

Strip away the culture from trans, and what is left? People from widely different cultures live as the opposite sex. Hijras are hijras, Femminielli are femminielli, presenting as women but not seen as women. Elagabalus proclaimed herself “Empress” of Rome, rather than Emperor, a rare example of a transitioned woman with the power to insist. People squabble over instances of those found to be female-bodied after careers as soldiers or physicians- were they transitioning from identity, or were they women choosing that way to survive in a man’s world? Hijra have penis and testicles removed, and so do many modern European trans women.

What is the common factor underlying all these cultural responses? Whether people, either gay or straight, are promiscuous or prefer long term partnerships depends partly on circumstances; I read in the eighties writers disgusted by gay people who said they were promiscuous, and that was disgusting, but also immature and unserious and a sign that homosexuality was pathological, yet I am aware of life-partnerships from before 1967, the date of partial decriminalisation in England. So too trans responses may depend on circumstances. If transgenderists in the old sense, living full time presenting female but not using hormones or surgery, were seen by anyone as “women” I doubt they would object.

If trans women had surgery because they thought it made them women, or made others believe they were women, or believe that they had some medical condition which was properly treated by surgery and therefore they lost the stigma of a sexual pervert, that would mean surgery arose from circumstances, was a cultural response rather than a part of the underlying phenomenon. If the advantage you obtain from the operation is wholly symbolic, it is still an advantage; but society might be better if we could be accepted without having to be mutilated.

There is not only the phenomenon of trans, and cultural expressions of it, but reactions to it and cultural expressions of that. Some say it is a delusion, harmful to the sufferer and to other people who are affected by the sufferer’s actions, and some say it is part of ordinary human diversity. Decent people indulge arachnophobes, taking care to check whether there are spiders and getting rid of any, rather than telling them to pull themselves together.

I say there is a phenomenon of feminine or effeminate men, who do not fit the masculine stereotype, who transition because they fit the feminine stereotype better. If that is the case, the belief in onesself being a woman would come from shame at not fitting masculinity, then seeing the cultural expression of transition. Aha! An answer! The concept of transition arising from gender dysphoria does not require there to be just two genders, and everyone is either one or the other, only that the person transitioning believes that. So the concept of non-binary or gender queer will subvert traditional transition: I do not fit masculinity, but I can find some other way of being, rather than pretend to be a woman.

As people debate these questions, their motivations affect their answers. Are they trying to subvert rigid gender roles by supporting transition, or to protect people from mutilation by preventing it? Do they see trans folk as a threat? Do they seek our best interests, or seek to use us for some other campaign? Are they phobic about us, letting disgust and fear run riot because they imagine it is rational and reasonable, or are they objective?

In the world without Patriarchy, would anyone transition?

Foot binding

Foot binding was abominably cruel, deforming the whole body as walking put pressure on the pelvis. Sometimes the flesh of the foot was encouraged to rot away, by sharp objects within the binding. Why would people do this? How would they rationalise it? The practice lasted a thousand years, and women bound their daughters’ feet. How could you see your daughter in the pain of having her bones broken, and necrotic tissue on the foot? As a way to control her? As a way of gaining some advantage for her?

John Mao, who has a photograph of a bare foot which made me gasp in horror, writes, The most common reason is that foot binding is often thought of as a prerequisite for marriage. The second reason is family honour. Families with a great reputation, families wanting to maintain their goods reputation, bind their daughter’s feet. For upholding this tradition for so long, the motive was for men to be able to dominate women. He explains the Qing dynasty sought to eradicate the practice intermittently from 1645, and foreign missionaries in the 19th century worked against it. Perhaps that made reactionary Chinese do it defiantly, as their thing. It was a way for poorer families to marry their daughter into money; the wealthiest Han families all bound their daughters’ feet.

Kwame Anthony Appiah: The tiniest feet — three-inch “golden lotuses,” as they were known — were important as a sign of status for women who could afford not to work in the fields or walk to market; the bound foot was a sign and instrument of chastity too, by limiting the movements of women. And you can’t overstate the force of convention: Chinese families bound their daughters’ feet because that was the normal thing to do.

Amanda Foreman: From the start, foot-binding was imbued with erotic overtones. Women, unable to resist or escape. For women, Neo-Confucianism placed extra emphasis on chastity, obedience and diligence. A good wife should have no desire other than to serve her husband, no ambition other than to produce a son, and no interest beyond subjugating herself to her husband’s family…The act of foot-binding—the pain involved and the physical limitations it created—became a woman’s daily demonstration of her own commitment to Confucian values.

Shiye Fu seeks to hear the women. One may feel revulsion at the practice while seeking to understand and respect the women themselves. Saying this is a way to make women docile might be imposing “the rhetoric of modernity”. In reaction to that, a feminist view might see it as “a voluntary ordeal undertaken by mothers to inform their daughters of how to succeed in a world authored by men”, or a practice where women show their agency and their control over their own bodies. Human beings use our bodies as tools, and the way we do this is controlled by culture: Based on this argument, I will then move on to discuss footbinding at the level of body technique, and to shed light on how bodily pain works to reflect the complicated relationship between body and self in the Chinese context.

In other words, I can’t know.

Illustration showing Yaoniang (窅娘) binding her own feet, Qing Dynasty woodblock print from Hundred Poems of Beautiful Women (Bai Mei Xin Yong Tu Zhuan 百美新詠圖傳)

Illustration showing Yaoniang (窅娘) binding her own feet, Qing Dynasty woodblock print from Hundred Poems of Beautiful Women (Bai Mei Xin Yong Tu Zhuan 百美新詠圖傳)

Cultural appropriation

Cultural appropriation is the theft of the riches of a culture by members of another more powerful culture. Law and the market do not recognise the rights of particular cultural groups to their heritage. Fortunately, people do, more and more: it is accepted that only actors from a particular ethnic group should play characters from that group. On a related issue, often disabled actors play disabled characters: we value their experience.

Illustrations. I am delighted that Scottish Country Dancing is worldwide, and that people with no connection to my culture want to dance in this way. The high point was Frae a’ the Airts, a book of dances from all over the world. Our dance was rigorously defined by the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society, in Scotland and out of it, with precise descriptions of figures and steps so that people dancing it anywhere are probably doing it in the same way; and people coming to it are generally concerned to get it “right”. Others add to our tradition, respectfully, sharing our joy not appropriating it.

Is it cultural appropriation for an American WASP to learn Spanish? Motivation matters. It is a difficulty to overcome, having to learn the dominant language where you are, and non-native speakers have the advantage that they can talk amongst themselves and not be understood. Learning the language to take away that advantage would be a motive hostile to the group. Learning it to communicate with people who have been unable to give the time to learn the dominant language is generous. That article linked argues that the claim that language learning will always be cultural appropriation obscures those situations where it is, including, per Orientalism, the attempt to define and analyse the less powerful culture from the point of view of the dominant culture.

However, that angry rejection of any attempt to approach me as cultural appropriation serves a useful psychological purpose, empowering the person who adopts it. It could bind them into their culture, with a group whose body language worked the same way, subtly different from that of the other group. It could give a sense of belonging and self-worth. I hope a person can grow beyond that, valuing the allies outside their own group, even developing an understanding of the persecutors, but self-acceptance is a necessary first stage. Internet fora are not only for establishing truth, but also, legitimately, for gaining reassurance. We need safe spaces before we can venture out into the wider world.

There are two ways of judging cultural appropriation: by the intention of the user, and the effect on the other. The effect on the other matters: ignorant insensitivity is not OK. The cultural artefact is beautiful, and should be treated with respect. If you despise my culture and the things I value, you despise me.

Psalm 137 is one of my favourite Bible passages. The psalmist is in the blackest pit of despair, desiring murderous revenge, and God is with him.

For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?

Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!

And some culture is world culture. We all benefit from the legacy of Shakespeare, and Murasaki Shikibu.

William Blake, Albion Rose

Popular Culture

640px-Candida_albicans_PHIL_3192_loresWhat is “popular culture”? What does the word “popular” mean, and how does it distinguish from other kinds of “culture”?

“High culture” is different in a culture where 1% have higher education, and no-one has a gramophone, from one where everyone has access to recordings and 40% go to university. Some aspects of culture need practice to appreciate- when I first heard Bach partitas for solo violin, I found them unlistenable, and now find them beautiful. Practice, not education: learning in music O grade what a plagal cadence or tierce de Picardy were was less important than being around when music was playing.

Though I can recognise a tierce de Picardy, what matters more to me is that trill on re and mi ending doreDoh, as a climax leading to a triumphant reiteration of the main theme, which Mozart almost always plays straight and which Beethoven almost always subverts, which I cannot name. Beethoven’s subversion would mean nothing to someone without an expectation of Mozart’s practice. The Picardy third just disappeared after the Baroque.

I could link to the Wikipedia article saying what the Baroque is, but my readers will understand the term.

400px-Big_StumpThere is a high culture and upper-middle culture, seen by the cries of disgust and ridicule which greet the short list of the Turner prize each year. What is produced now requires familiarity with the art scene right now, which requires specialisation, and someone who delights in Impressionists rather than genre painters like George Elgar Hicks might see nothing in a Miro.

There is different culture for different ages. Horror films which help teenagers feel fear without threat, to acclimatise us, do not appeal to me now.

Some people are omnivores, liking high culture and low culture for different purposes. Some culture is gentrified: Jazz was the music of the people and is now high art.

Margaret Atwood’s insistence that Oryx and Crake is “Speculative fiction” not “Science fiction” is a judgment on Zhehhhnre fiction- horror, mystery, romance, SF. Atwood is, like, proper Culcha, serious lit’rachur, not silly “science fiction” like Slaughterhouse-five or Out of the Silent Planet.

How could I possibly know what is high culture anyway, apart from the judgments of others? Mere survival is not necessarily the clue. Ann Radcliffe was a pioneer of Gothic horror, and Wilkie Collins of the mystery novel, but their characters are rather flat. Intellectual fashion mimics objective judgment and I use the judgments of others to dismiss what they dismiss and feel myself sophisticated.

Does each person use particular cultural artifacts because they reflect their character and views, or are people moulded by the culture in which we live and move and have our being?

Celebrating the male Mother need words, for how may I see without them?

I have something utterly beautiful, sweet, vulnerable, precious, fragile, creative, and I need to describe it. It is male: it is proper to, and the common experience of, some people with testicles. It is Feminine in the best sense of that word. It is well known, for we have many words for it: sissy or submissive, which I have put in my permalink in a flagrant attempt at attracting searches. Our words are contemptuous: “she wears the trousers in a relationship”, he is a “male lesbian“, he is a sissy.

Our sexuality is a part of this, and there are spaces for it, and we feel ashamed as we seek them out. The internet offerings are porn sites and professional dominatrix sites: it may be that there are fewer women able to make a satisfying relationship with us than there are of us, or they know and accept themselves even less than we do.

There is an ideal of manhood, the warrior male, and so rather than being seen as having an equal and alternative way of being male, I am seen as an inadequate male. Just as with homophobia, I internalise that, desperate to fit the ideal of manhood.

I am slightly different. I am a trans woman, a trans lesbian, and I see the continuity in the spectrum from men with no desire to File:Die junge George Sand.jpgtransition who want a woman to wear the trousers. That perplexed and distressed me- seeing the maleness of my way of being, I wondered if my desire to transition was just a diseased fantasy (as if I needed yet another reason to wonder that). By the way, it isn’t.

We want a woman to wear the trousers. Or-


How may I put this positively? Casting around for positive role-models, at one moment I consider the camp gay male, but that is not it. That is not me. That is not this man I am thinking of.

-who want a woman who complements them, and allows their eldritch fey feminine to blossom and flourish.

My culture is deficient, and suffers for it. We need a way of delighting in this wonderful gift, or otherwise it becomes a curse.

Looking for pictures has been so difficult. Chopin seems to fit; but I cannot think of another, and looking under “fop”, “dandy” or “effeminate” does not seem to produce another, so I pick Georges Sand faute de mieux. This RuPaul quote is spot on: There is a definite prejudice towards men who use femininity as part of their palate; their emotional palate, their physical palate. Is that changing? It’s changing in ways that don’t advance the cause of femininity. I’m not talking frilly-laced pink things or Hello Kitty stuff. I’m talking about goddess energy, intuition and feelings. That is still under attack, and it has gotten worse. But RuPaul did not seem to fit, following the drag queen tradition, normally gay. The gynephilia of my group feels intensely important.

Something has happened, which brings this into terribly sharp relief for me. I had lunch with Liz, and said that I have to be authentic, and self-accepting, and to integrate myself. I found it difficult to get the word authentic out without verbally putting ironic quote marks round it, mocking myself. But it is true, and saying it gets easier.

Sex and gender

File:Aachen, Hans von - Emperador Matthias (1612).jpgSex is physical, gender is cultural.

I presented male, and now express myself female. So I am “Transgender”, as this is to do with my way of presenting myself to the World, and expressing myself to myself. But- the word “transgender” implies that sex does not come into it. In previous usage, there was a distinction between “transsexuals” who had the operation, and “transgenderists” who did not.

I had male sex organs. Arguably my sex was male. Yet I revolt against that idea: it is so deep, so ingrained, so natural that I am female that I think of my sex as female, too, throughout my life. Something in my brain, something in my genes, something. So I do not like the word “transsexual”- crossing between the sexes- because I feel I have always been female.

One advantage of “Transsexual” as an identity is (Irony ALERT!!) that if the bigot looks at me, I can whine, “I’m not like those weirdos over there. I’m transsexual! I’ve had the operation and everything! Transvestites are perverts, but I have a medical condition!” However, justifying myself to a bigot is a mug’s game. It is impossible. And- I do not want to be accepted because I have gone down a certain path. I want to be accepted because I am human, and I want that extended to everyone.

So, we use the word “Trans”. It is inclusive.

—————————– culture: the kilt, though skirt-like, is a man’s garment, and trousers are a woman’s garment. But the cultural issue is deeper than that: the kilt, with deep pleats in a heavy fabric, swings in a masculine way. It is not feminine.

So, culturally, I can go so far. I can accept that men wear something which partially resembles a skirt, but I want it to be masculine. Men in something feminine is transgressive. Women’s trousers are cut differently, in different colours and fabrics. The Restoration gentleman, in bright-coloured velvet and lace with a long curly wig still wore trousers, while the ladies wore long skirts. I can accept the different cultural expression of masculinity as long as there is a distinction.

Oh, right. That is conservative. Not radical at all. I need the distinction. I am uncomfortable without it.

Then I can accept others if it is explained to me. The concept of Neutrois, for example, someone identifies as neither man nor woman. Oh, OK. This person is neutrois. I can probably restrain myself from policing the person’s apparent gender expression, but I will certainly notice it. This person is Genderqueer. I learn, slowly. Remember this is a trans woman writing- I have a reaction, then a moment’s thought while I apply my Diversity understanding, and I may need to consciously apply that Diversity understanding repeatedly.

And- not just as a matter of gender- I am not good with people new to me. I need to spend time with people before I am comfortable with them.

Part of my noticing, part of my staring, is considering- is this a possibility for me? If people stare at women hand in hand, it might be bigoted condemnation, or fearful admiration- But that’s not allowed –is it?

Gender studies

I got the phrase “sex is genetic; gender is cultural” from The Feminist Files, by a student from North Carolina inspired to make a difference in the world. Apart from in grammar, I had not previously understood the use of the word gender and I am grateful.

My caveats: I am the one who gets to say what sex I am, and the sex I have been at all times in my life. I am and have been female. “Sex is physical, gender is cultural” would be more assonant; sex is physical, involving brain structure and genes as well as gonads.

And gender is a cultural phenomenon in that it is my cultural expression of something innate. Had I had two X chromosomes and a male outward appearance, if gender were merely cultural I would have grown up happily male, conformed to my upbringing, expressing maleness culturally as my society and family expected, more or less. There is something there in me which I express culturally, something “feminine”. I like flowery skirts, crystal pendants and long, dangly earrings.

Feminism here has won the campaigns to get women rights to go to university and vote, and is winning equal respect at work. It can now be in part about acceptance of the widest range of cultural expression of gender, liberating people to choose to express ourselves however we wish, neutrois and gynandrous as well as all aspects of male and female.