Poststructuralism and trans

Transition makes sense if there is a “real me”, a feminine being with feminine characteristics, ideally really a woman but if that becomes unbelievable at least a personality which fits the ideal of femininity better than the ideal of masculinity. This fits with the experience of trying to conform to masculinity but eventually admitting this was impossible and freeing myself to be feminine; always finding expressing myself female much pleasanter than presenting male, until presenting male became unbearable. If there are no innate characteristics seen as feminine, then I can only explain it by sexual addiction, associating cross-dressing with arousal so dressing to be aroused. But now, I cannot imagine presenting male, though I am rarely if ever aroused by my clothes or presentation.

An Enlightenment Human, thought to be a coherent, stable consciousness with agency, autonomy and rationality, producing language and meaning, gave way to a Modernist idea of an authentic self. Poststructuralism says the self is fluid, fleeting, fragmented, continually formed and reformed by social construction, produced by language and systems of meaning or understanding, and determined by historical, economic and cultural contexts. So says Sylvia Morgan, who appears to accept that Poststructuralist view. I don’t know how it could be demonstrated, any more than nature v nurture. Even if her subjects’ understandings of themselves changed, that might simply mean that they had developed a better understanding, shedding self-concept conventions and better seeing the real personality.

Morgan discusses feminist theory and uses the word patriarchy in explaining it, but it is not clear whether she believes that theory. Elsewhere in her thesis, she discloses 10/28 participants were raised by parents forty or more years older than they are (like me) and most regarded the dominant parent in their family as being their mother (like me). I set myself to write about her explanation of poststructuralist theory, but keep getting distracted by details like that. I might see the submissive male as “feminine”. I only came to see my father as submissive after I had surgery- that is, my understanding changed; but that does not mean the dynamics I was understanding changed.

So I consider the theory of poststructuralism unproven, but interesting enough for me to seek to understand it, which I start by blogging about Dr Morgan’s thesis.

We construct identities and self-understanding through performance. Also I think through others’ understandings- if enough people tell me I am not a woman, I have to take refuge in the idea that I am a transwoman. It is a way of having a sense of self. We exist within society, and use symbols to communicate or demonstrate we belong to particular groups. We desperately need to belong, in order to survive. Morgan describes trans women learning to present as more feminine, for example by consciously making our faces more emotionally expressive, while trans men practice being inscrutable- personally, I still resent how expressive my face is of my emotions, so that others might read them before I am conscious of them.

Pierre Bourdieu produced the concept of habitus, a way of behaving which fitted your background, how people like you behave with others. It could be understood in terms of class, as he was socially mobile from working class to the heights of academe he developed a cleft habitus, different modes of being with parents and with peers. My friend, daughter of a coal miner and a junior lecturer, was in an association of working class academics, whose residual working class presentation might prevent them advancing as far as their talents might justify; many British people speak with the Queen’s English, but revert to a regional accent when they return to their home region. Morgan’s idea that trans folk retain the habitus of their gendered upbringing, unable entirely to fit the gender we choose to express, applies differently to different trans folk. Some, she admits, pass in stealth. I only know the working class origins of some friends because they tell me of them. That some people manage to pass as upper middle class, or as women, does not mean that it is easy.

Dr Morgan writes, Foucault’s revelation was that, rather than being a natural innate human property, sexuality is actually a constructed category of experience and knowledge, with historical and social origins. His focus was on the role of institutions and discourses in the production and functioning of sexuality in society (although he did not totally rule out a biological dimension). Foucault’s work exposed how knowledge claims are simultaneously claims to power – they are inseparable. The question to be asked is: what is at stake in the production of knowledge? Why are certain categories constructed? Whose interests are served? Much as Foucault’s investigations into sexuality revealed constructed categories of knowledge rather than discovered identities, this analysis can also be applied to gender categories. Sexuality and gender become inscribed onto individuals as a function of their practices, and classification and the creation of identities serves the development of regimes of power.

Well. There is biphobia, and possibly most people’s bi attractions are suppressed by rigorous propaganda for Straightness. Then the few people who are solely same-sex attracted are shoehorned into cultural constructs- camp, gay, bear, etc. Elagabalus, the Roman Emperor who proclaimed herself Empress, was not a “trans woman” like I am, she came from a different culture, but she may have had a “biological dimension” which I share. That said, transsexual women’s support groups rigorously enforced the necessity for GRS, and possibly we have it due to our cultural understanding rather than anything biological. A woman with a penis makes no sense.

Or, we have some biological reality, but how we can express it is constrained by the culture.

Understanding trans and gender

Fifteen years after transition, this is where I am with trans and gender. Gender and transgender are cultural, not innate. There is no psychological characteristic of one sex which the other does not have, or which is not good or bad in the same way. The greater physical size of males can make males more physically demonstrative of dominance or anger. The difference comes from socialisation, which is pervasive from birth, performed by adults and children, and enforced by violence including ostracism, mockery and physical force. Gender and status are intertwined: non-conforming gender marks you down, though particularly gifted individuals can be recognised within alternative communities.

If the culture were different, valuing all gender expression by all, whether male or female, that would free everyone. To varying degrees, everyone would be gender-fluid, and non-binary gender would cease to have meaning. No-one can know what trans would look like, because trans is affected by culture.

I oppose people being poisoned and mutilated by hormones and surgery. I would be interested to know what proportion of people who have a vaginoplasty manage to dilate it to accommodate a penis comfortably, and how many use it for penetrative sex. The research has not been done, but I could not dilate enough, and my friend who was penetrated said her partner’s penis was sore afterwards, as the neovagina is not as accommodating as natural vaginas. I sympathise with people with breasts who do not want them stared at; it is as if you are an appendage to a pair of breasts sometimes; and binders are painful and constrict breathing. No-one should have to have their body altered to escape oppression.

Natural bodies are beautiful and best allowed to develop naturally. A human not tortured by shame will love their body from childhood, be led to value the changes of puberty, and will care for their body, without needing compulsive behaviours which damage it as a way to escape reality. All bodies have a wide range of gender.

Hormones have made my emotions fluctuate wildly, and make me overheat when I exercise. That emotional volatility is not the whole reason I ceased being able to work, but is part of it.

Sex is potentially far more costly for women than for men. Culture could ameliorate that but instead exacerbates it, with “sluts” and “incels” alike shamed, and all that Me too has revealed to the half of the population unaware of it before- if they have been listening.

Trans is a response to the culture. At first it was strongly repressed but it still burst out, in Molly clubs and solitary individuals. Then the culture sought to manage it: just as English Law protects “transsexual persons” narrowly defined, certain expressions of transgender are tolerated, and there is social pressure to conform to those expressions. Social pressure causes people to have hormones and surgery.

The whole range of transgender activities in AMAB folk is associated with erotic arousal. Arousal is not the sole cause, but may exacerbate the compulsive nature of it. If AFAB people feel aroused by trans activity society is less aware of that, which echoes the Victorian attitude to same sex attraction: gay men were criminal, lesbians were not believed to exist.

There is no feminist campaign which is not weakened by hostility to trans women. The disgust freely expressed at trans women by some feminists is phobic, and should be recognised as phobic- gently worked around, not encouraged as a source of pride and group-identification. Trans women subvert gender norms by ostentatiously flouting them, upsetting conservatives.

The cost of diversity in society is paid by the people who are different. Conformity is prized, but diversity is a beautiful gift. If everyone was free to express their whole self everyone would be happier, and society enriched. However as things are now, a lot of people are happier after transition, and should be allowed to. It makes people’s lives better.

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.