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Enough of this TERF war, it’s time to debunk some transphobic arguments

I approach this page and my impending words with trepidation. What you scared for, man? I hear my internal voice asking, mocking, goading. As a cis man, my forthcoming conveyance of transgender subjectivity, of transgender validity—a trans treatise, if you will—is fraught with questions of my ability (or even my right) to speak about a reality I do not live. It is fraught with the nagging privilege that if I screw this up, the integrity of my being-in-the-world will be pretty much unaffected, whereas my fellow trans folks may very well be forced to confront dangerous and fatal situations on the basis of my failure. This is not an attempt for me to speak on behalf of trans folk. It is rather an attempt to solidify what should be a wide-held truth: that trans lives are lives. Valid and whole.

It seems like I always have a story to go along with these meditations, particularly on race and gender (the cognitive proclivity of a burgeoning literature scholar with an intellectual penchant for narrative, I suppose). So here we go again. Another story.

I was having dinner at a local restaurant with one of my closest grad school friends and the woman he’s been dating-but-not-dating since the summer started. Let’s call her Sheila. Sheila is an incredibly erudite white Jewish female. Student of comparative literature, she comes  from a rather wealthy background (on the real, her home is in the same neighborhood as a boxing legend and a movie star—“I’m not talkin’ ‘bout rich, I’m talkin’ ‘bout wealth,” Chris Rock has famously said). I have genuine intellectual respect for her, to say the least. But as we watched the big screen TV surrounded by undergrads cheering for the U.S. soccer team on-screen, somehow we got on the subject of trans athletes. Sheila, in a nutshell and after a lot of misgendering, believes that trans women should absolutely, positively not be permitted to participate on women’s teams. She asserted that “men [categorically] are stronger and faster than women [categorically].”

My response to her was woefully inadequate, waffling through arguments about how while, sure, Lebron James may run circles around any woman on the ball court (a claim that itself is not necessarily true), the best player in the WNBA may do the same to, say, JeVale McGee. What does that say about her assertion that “Men” are better, stronger, faster than “Women” (note the essentializing capital letters)? Doesn’t it throw a wrench into that neat and clean hierarchical gender binary?

She wasn’t buying it, though I can’t really blame her, as I wasn’t in top intellectual form during that conversation.

So I’ve relegated myself to the deep recesses of the gendered thoughts moseying around my mind. I’ve summoned those thoughts as best I could and conveyed them here, where thought bears its naked self, in hopes of perhaps giving trans subjects the space to exist unapologetically and wholly validly in the gaze of a cis person. This is surely not to assert that my relaying of the lives and subjectivities of trans folks is unmediated, “pure,” unfettered by cisnormativity, or entirely cogent. But here is my attempt, an attempt at perhaps convincing one, or ten, or forty people—or none, merely reaffirming the already-held views of trans folks and their allies. But it is an attempt, I think, I must take if lives are to be saved.


Debunking the “Body Aesthetic” Argument

As Black Queer Studies scholar (and one of my dissertation committee members) C. Riley Snorton asks, “how does one know that she is viewing a trans body? (And relatedly, how can one really be sure that she is viewing a cisgender one?)”

I imagine most folks would shuttle through common gendered norms: if the person has bodily curves, long hair, a high voice, breasts, she’s a Woman. And if the person has broad shoulders, a deep voice, body hair, and other “rugged” characteristics then he’s a Man. But, I ask, don’t those ones deemed “women” sometimes have beards? (Frida Kahlo had a mustache, after all) And don’t what are called “men” sometimes have high voices (drummer Tre Cool,) and what are often referred to as “man boobs”? Well sure, but those are exceptions they say. I then ask, and you know for sure those others who weren’t exceptions, who you thought you accurately assessed, were in fact what you deemed Men and Women? If so, then how, considering we’ve just demonstrated that your classifications have flaws?

My point is that there is no “naturally” female or male body; they are all bodies that are mired in social meanings, meanings that change over time and space. Everyone’s gender is made. Transgender scholar Anne Enke says “Gender, and also sex, are made through complex social and technical manipulations that naturalize some while abjecting others.” There is no natural, pure, unmediated sex or gender. How you “know” you are looking at a trans or cis body is not an inherent understanding of innate and essentially obvious sex characteristics but an absorption of cultural and social cues that say: “this is what male and female bodies should look like.” Physical bodies are always social bodies, and physical bodies never have meaning outside of socially prescribed templates. Physical bodies are always bodies that socially mean.

What the hell are you talking about? I know, I know. Check this:

The binary understanding we have now of sex and gender is wack. From comedians who make sweeping generalizations about man/woman binary (erasing trans and genderfluid folks altogether) to frat bros who give advice to the horny freshman about how “Women” are, they all operate under this awful definition of “Men are ABC and Women are XYZ. Simple.” But not really.

Non-normative bodies, bodies that defy easy categorization, are perhaps the most salient examples of how inadequate our classifications are, which sends a clear call for reevaluation of those classifications. And not only for trans folks, as binary gender classifications and attributes let us all down. Think: there is not a single generalization about males or females that can be applied to every individual member of a particular sex, is there? “Women can be tall, hairy, aggressive, or good at map reading. Men may lactate, gossip, stay awake after sex or be good at multitasking,” Jane McCredie so simply puts it. Ultimately, trans bodies—that is, people that identify as neither, both, or somewhere in between male and/or female—lay in the cut. As the vernacular adage goes, chillin’ in between, showing how categorical meanings are oh-so-inadequate.

This is all to point out that there are contradictions in the so-called biological Truths (again, note the capital letter), contradictions that should make us question our assumptions, the terms and terrain of valid embodied life, and the very ordering of our world. Yes, physical differences between bodies exist, but I choose not to say that “physical differences between male and female bodies exist.” Physical differences are definitely a thing, “but these differences are socially meaningless until social practices transform them into social facts,” as Judith Lorber points out. The phrasing “physical differences between male and female bodies exist” assumes that we know, absolutely, what those bodies are, how they are defined, and which ones are anomalous. We create what a “male” and “female” body is often without sitting with the contradictions, that messiness of bodies. Women are people who can get pregnant, they say, but my ten-year-old sister cannot get pregnant, nor can some twenty-somethings, nor elderly women. Are they not “women”? Women are people who menstruate, others say, and men can’t, but menopausal “women” also cannot menstruate, nor can my aforementioned sister. Are they then “men”? Men can’t lactate or give birth. But, one, yes men can lactate, and two, trans men who still have functioning ovaries and uterus can in fact be impregnated and give birth. These facts should at least give us pause—maybe two or three pauses—when thinking about gender, sex, and bodies said to be unable to do certain things on the basis of their presumed sex or gender.


Debunking the “Biological” Argument

Inevitably I get folks flaunting their biological and medical expertise when it comes to invalidating trans bodies. Like on some, “the axioms of science and the medical establishment have proven…” type shit. Yawn. You done, sophomore bio major?

Biology itself is not set on gender qualifications and those binary categories, along with being categories we’ve created socially, are not the only sexes of the biological world. So even biologically there are multiple dimensions determining an organism’s sex, and they don’t necessarily line up so neat. The factors that go into determining sex: number of X and Y chromosomes, whether the organism has ovaries or testes, whether a womb is present or not, what hormones the organism produces and what degree of estrogen and testosterone is present, genitalia, and brain size. All of these characteristics exist on sliding scales that sometimes muddy the sex/gender binary. And with this I introduce intersex conditions.

People who are intersex are those who have variations of sexual development (VSDs). In all, there are about twenty-four conditions of VSD that blur the line between male and female. Determining how many people can be considered intersex is a bit confusing because incidence varies in different populations and there is no universal agreement on what should be included in the definition. As a result, estimates are super varied, from one in 4,500 newborns in the Western world to as many as one in fifty. But even with the conservative estimate, intersex conditions are more frequent than albinism. And we all know about, and have seen, albino folks. So in a city like New York or London, there can be as many as 100,000 people with a VSD (according to Jane McCredie).

So a VSD can, for example, cause some “girl-looking” babies to be born with “male” genes and internal structures, and vice versa, which throws into question the very meaning of “genetically male/female.” In the documentary Me, My Sex, and I, one woman, Katie, was “girl-looking,” lived her entire life as a female, but had a partially descended testicle, no womb, and male chromosomes. One wonders how this complicates our assumptions and rationales regarding what makes a woman.

Other intersex conditions include Klinefelter syndrome, which occurs about one in a thousand “males” and is characterized by having one or more extra X chromosomes, scarce body hair, breast development, and the inability to produce sperm; congenital adrenal hyperplasia, in which a baby girl is “masculinized” and possesses an enlarged, penis-like clitoris, labia majora that have fused together like a scrotal sac, and an incompletely formed vagina; and androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) in which a person has XY chromosomes and produce typical “male” levels of testosterone, but, due to their androgen receptors being unable to read their hormones, develop in typical “female” ways in utero, which results in a generally “female” appearance, no ovaries or a uterus, and the inability to birth children.

So much for biology being the end-all-be-all when it comes to binary sex. Actually, biology tells us this binary fails to exist.

Biological sex is often invoked in order to justify and naturalize what are gendered differences in a social status and cultural understanding. What qualifies as a biologically “healthy” male or female body is often that which is simply in alignment with gender norms. Though surely some intersex conditions may pose some health problems, this is no reason to start slicing and dicing so that a person “fits” into a “normal” binaristic gendered body. The preservation of health is no excuse to alter bodies so that they fit into historically, culturally, socially, and hierarchically determined normative genders.

I’ll hand the trans baton off to trans scholars Susan Stryker and Aren Z. Aizura. In short; Health should not become a euphemism for the production of gender normativity through the extension of regulatory apparatuses; it must also encompass new potentials for unexpected becomings, and it must accommodate the manifestation of unforeseen, emergent potentials of bodily being. Wildness, even more than cultivation or care, should characterize the health of our gender ecologies.”


Debunking the TERF Arguments

And then we have those feminists—human paragons of gender justice—who just say uh-uh to trans folks. TERFs they’re called, Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, among whom are people like Sheila Jeffreys and Janice Raymond. I know, tisk tisk, right?

Trans inclusion is imperative for feminists. Period. The existence of trans folks does not, as TERFs argue, bolster the gender binary. The argument goes that gender transitioning and trans stories—i.e. sex/gender reassignment surgery, narratives of feeling inherently female or male, etc.—reify the fallacious notion that there is an essential womanness or maleness, or that living in a “male” body yet feeling oneself to have always been a woman and transitioning only reaffirms the pervasive understanding that there is a particular body for a particular gendered proclivity. But I would assert that simply by virtue of transitioning one actively defies the idea that a certain body is only and always “naturally” inclined to looking and behaving in certain ways. The gender binary idea is one that rests on gender being static and unchanging from birth to death. Transitioning by nature dislodges the veracity of that assumption and denies the presumption that our bodies have a biological predestination.

Point blank: if gender essentialism and immutable sex were the actual lay of the gendered land, then trans identities wouldn’t exist. But they do. Sooo, yeah, mentally chew on that food for thought…

The TERFs that vehemently exclude trans folks in feminism tout themselves to be omniscient arbiters of valid gender identity. It’s a kind of aspirational “feminist tyranny” TERFs enact, as Judith Butler aptly describes. They invalidate the lives, experiences, and subjectivities of gendered persons by claiming their “objective” knowledge and understanding of the world. Sounds a little like the white dudes against whom feminism originally sought to argue, doesn’t it? Like, just a little?

TERFs level the critique of the artificial construction or mutilation of trans bodies, and preach that feminist aims should not validate the shedding of blood to fit into a gender binary we should be dismantling.

Okay, fine. But this doesn’t acknowledge that all of our bodies are “constructed” and are trying to figure out how to live with, through, and against those social establishments that indeed contribute to our identities. Humans are not “fake,” a descriptor often imposed upon trans bodies because they seek to construct themselves in new ways; to the contrary: because human bodies are socially constructed and we find new ways to construct ourselves through new social definitions we are able to be socially recognized and validated.

And further, to the aspersion of trans “mutilation,” fuck that, yo.

If you wanna use such strong language, I’ll use some strong language too: is not the cis woman who shaves, gets botox injections, rhinoplasty, hair extensions, and a slew of other augmentations to presumably fit into the ideal of (cis) womanhood not “mutilated” as well? Is not the cis man who GTLs (gym, tan, laundry, as made famous by the show Jersey Shore) and gets tattoos to look “sexier” not “mutilated”?

I feel the need to quote Gloria Steinem because, well, I can’t say it any better: “So now I want to be unequivocal in my words: I believe that transgender people, including those who have transitioned, are living out real, authentic lives. Those lives should be celebrated, not questioned.” ‘Nuff said.
The topic of sex and gender is such a fraught and complex one, and I certainly have not done it its due justice here. But it’s a start. People get so riled up when you counter pervasive sex and gender assumptions that are too often thought to be common sense, obvious truths. Sex and gender are so fundamental to our understanding of what constitutes humans (just note that in English we are incapable of describing someone without using “he” or “she;” the gender description is our baseline, bare minimum descriptor of a person) and to call that into question is to call into question much of the fundamental truths upon which people’s world rests. But this is, I think, a necessary disruption, as to disrupt these fundamentals would be to make the world more accepting and compassionate toward gender nonconforming folks, trans folks. And that’s at least in part what this feminist and social justice thing is all about.


[image via x]

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Written by Marquis Bey

Marquis Bey is an unapologetically Black feminist Ph.D. student in Cornell University's English department studying Black Feminist Thought, African American Literature, and Transgender Studies. He has published a number of academic articles on race and gender, and also writes for more public forums on the topics of feminism, Blackness, and language. Aside from his "academic jam" (thank you for the phrase, Kristen), Marquis enjoys watching cartoons, working out, collecting cat posters, and losing touch with the outside world by receding into the tumultuous recesses of his own mind.

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