Friday, April 15, 2011

The Transagenda: Lessons from the Oppressed Cis Majority

Today in "Let's All Remember to Breathe," we have this gem from The Washington Examiner. In it, author Stella Morabito loses her shit because now she has to consider whether gender is a thing or not.

Her problem is that the Maryland Senate will likely pass House Bill 235, adding discrimination protections for transpeople, essentially. Let's quote:

The most interesting and Orwellian thing about this bill – and so many like it across the nation -- is its stealthy use of language to redefine our humanity.

OH REALLY? Hang on a sec, folks. I need to go scream into a pillow so that I can write about this with some kind of rational thought.

The only way I can find into this is to go back to queer theory and gender theory and talk about how language has been used to define our humanity all along. That's Jacques Derrida's whole project, right? So this lady, Morabito, is hung up on the word "assigned." We'll come back to that in a minute. First I want to talk about "gender."*

Morabito is upset that this whole concept of assignment "requires everyone to accept the idea that our sex is a social construct, relative and changeable, and to reject it as a genetic or a physical fact."

Well, exactly. Some people separate "sex" from "gender," because "sex" implies "assigned at birth," or the reproductive organs a person has or doesn't have. This is clearly tricky for intersex people, so we already know it's not so simple. Then we have Gender, which is a language, a meaning system that comes with symbols and rules and punishments. Derrida criticized language's built-in problems, because it tends to favor sameness through naming the things that are common to a speech community. Therefore, anything unique or private goes unnamed. One of the most private things is our sense of our own bodies and our gender experiences, so language, with its inherent and deliberate limitations, can be inaccurate to many peoples' experiences.

But the thing is, language works through exclusion. By that I mean, we have created the meaning of "woman" by excluding everything that is non-woman - same thing for "man." Anything that doesn't fit into the templates for the entirely masculine or entirely feminine is excluded. Because the meaning of "woman" or "man" depends on excluding what is Not "woman" or "man," this binary is unstable. We know that it is unstable, because the things that signify masculine and feminine have shifted over time. It is now possible for women to develop ripped arms or carry guns and still be feminine. But because our social Discourse is so invested in these binaries, we have to move them and redraw the lines. [I'm using Gee's definition of Discourse here: basically, collective understandings or patterns of behavior - I posted more on that here, and also read Emma's amazing comment.] Now it's hot for a woman to have big muscles or, hell, play a contact sport like roller derby. In 1950, do you think a female construction worker could still find a space in "feminine"? No.

So we can see that these binaries are false, and that language already has been defining humanity. Morabito isn't picking up on anything new here, she's just demonstrating her straight cis privilege. She's never noticed how our social Discourses have been operating to keep people corralled into one gender identity or another, with only two acceptable options. It goes beyond this, though. Bodies that queer the act of gender through combining meaning are excluded altogether - people who identify as butch, trans, intersex, etc.

I think Morabito thinks that language just describes the real world. It's all out there, and we have these handy words to define things, but language is not so easy or transparent. There are no positive or affirming - or even neutral - words in the Discourse for those who don't fit the stereotypes or the binary. Language is political. It is meant to work against you in these circumstances. Riki Wilchins describes this "fascism of meaning" as "an assault of meaning that forces people to live as gendered impossibilities." If there is no language for you that affirms you, you don't really exist.

Morabito is worried about the word "assigned." She's really concerned because this means that it isn't inherent, has never been inherent, that M and F have been choices forced upon us. She's exactly right about that. She and I just differ as to our reactions to this. I think changing gender from a check-box to a text field is a great idea. She sees it as a threat to her identity, as though she couldn't continue to refer to herself as a woman. No one is trying to take that away from her, but she sees these things as zero-sum. If we get to have freedom from gender binaries, she loses the construct she is so invested in.

Her closing argument is this:

Most insidious about this legislation is that by acting to redefine the humanity of us all, it is a gross violation of the trust of the governed.

Again: The gender Discourses we already have define and redefine our humanity. And she does it here, too: the governed, in her mind, apparently only include the people invested in the binaries. Everyone else isn't among the governed, isn't among the people. Who is redefining humanity now?

* If this is all new to you, go read Riki Wilchin's Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer, like right fucking now.


  1. What's the difference between capital-D Discourse and small-d discourse? Is it sort of like how Hegel separated "The Dialectic" (history) from all the other puny dialectics?

  2. Thanks for asking. Small-d discourse is just "language-in-use," while Discourses are about collective understandings/patterns of behavior/ways of being in the world This is what James Paul Gee says in "An Introduction to Discourse Analysis":

    "When 'little d' discourse (language-in-use) is melded integrally with non-language 'stuff' to enact specific identities and activities, then I say that 'big D' Discourses are involved. We are all members of many, a great many, different Discourses, Discourses which often which often influence each other in positive and negative ways, and which sometimes breed with each other to create new hybrids. When you 'pull off' being a culturally specific sort of 'everyday' person... you use language and 'other stuff' - ways of acting, interacting, feeling, believing, valuing, and using various sorts of objects, symbols, tools, and technologies - to recognize yourself and others as meaning and meaningful in certain ways. In turn, you produce, reproduce, sustain, and transform a given 'form of life' or Discourse. All life for all of us is just a patchwork of thoughts, words, objects, events, actions, and interactions in Discourses" (p. 7).

  3. Another fantastic read (measured by the degree to which my blood pressure was elevated through reading).

    On a theoretical note, while I find that Gee is sufficient for differentiating little d discourse and big D Discourse, Fairclough is definitely the better choice for examining discourse as it relates to power and ideology.

    I highly recommend Fairclough, N. (1995). Critical discourse analysis. London: Longman, which I will now reference.

    In Fairclough's framework, "Power is conceptualized both in terms of asymmetries between participants in discourse events, and in terms of unequal capacity to control how texts are produced, distributed and consumed in particular sociocultural contexts" (p. 1).

    When it comes to gender, we are mostly dealing with the latter conceptualization, and I think that Fairclough's concept of naturalization is really helpful for deconstructing Morabito's malfunction. According to Fairclough, "Naturalization gives to particular ideological representations (e.g., gender "assignments") the status of common sense, and thereby makes them opaque, i.e., no longer visible as ideologies" (p. 42).

    Morabito is incapable of recognizing the degree to which her understanding of "male" and "female" is wholly ideological. To her, it's just common sense because the terms are so naturalized in our Discourse. It does not occur to her that alternative lexicalizations (i.e., butch, trans, intersex) might exist, because "male" and "female" as ideological-discursive formations (what Fairclough refers to as IDFs) have achieved dominance and hence the neutral code.

    By the way, I hate the words "common sense" and I cringe any time I hear them together and in that sequence, except of course when in reference to Thomas Paine (Totes okay then!).

    Shit, I need to work on my dissertation. Toodles.

  4. Emma, I love you millions. This is fabulous.

  5. Posted this on my facebook, but relevant here.

    "The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl."--Ladies Home Journal, 1918

    Meanings change.

  6. Yup, that's been making the rounds lately. It's a good thing to note. Thanks for posting it here!

  7. As you say, the dominant gender binary is spatially and temporally localized. And even as the notion of gender has shifted, those marginalized by its boundaries (however defined) have carved out their own niches. Intimate Matters ( traces sexuality in what is now the United States over history and in the context of race, gender, class, and geography. Obviously gender and sexuality are different, but the current dominant narrative links them.

    As Steve points out, contemporary gendered colors have a long and varied history. Also of note is how recently mainstream US society conceived of sex as a biological rather than cultural construct. Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex ( delves into the late 19th century medical construction of sex (it's worth noting that doctors were constructing sexuality at the time, too -- see Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis).

    I'm not sure that the notions that it's "hot for women to have big muscles" and that female construction workers are feminine have widespread contemporary currency in the US. Personally, I agree that there's no contradiction between "femininity" and big muscles or construction, but I don't see majority acceptance of these notions in the US today. I hope that we're moving to a place where Michelle Obama can have ripped arms without people decrying her as unfeminine and female contractors can appear on TV shows without compensating normed feminine presentation. I suppose that there's even public presentation is a step forward, but given the similarities between Babe Didrikson's and Mia Hamm's retirements into public marriages, I'm hesitant to claim too much progress.

    I do recognize that I'm not in a position to express lived experience, so I'm happy to cede ground to people who can speak with more lived authority.

  8. I'm not necessarily claiming progress here, just the idea that the constructed binaries are unstable. And I definitely don't think everyone would agree that women have muscle tone is feminine. I'm saying that it isn't considered something limited to only people whose gender identity is considered transgressive, like butch women. You see plenty of femme women running around with muscle tone, or at least I do. There are always going to be people battling these lines and trying to redraw them. Spaces are always contested, especially when it comes to queering identity.

  9. @Jess Got it. I definitely agree that binaries are unstable. As you rightly say, spaces are contested.

    I agree that there are many femme presenting women with muscle tone -- in person and in the media at large. But it tends to be a body sculpting sort of muscle tone rather than a strength muscle tone. To me, there's a conscious effort in mainstream femme presentation to stay well clear from the butch "line". At present, muscle tone in femme presentation is about projecting contemporary standards of "health" rather than "strength" or "ability". As mentioned before, current "health" advice is less about helping people than body policing. (Against Health ( is pretty good, if you haven't seen it before.)

    So I'm of two minds about the fact that femme presenting women with muscle tone are increasing in visibility in the US compared to the recent US past: 1) It's a step forward in terms of widening the scope of "accepted" femme presentations for contemporary US women or 2) It's merely a shift in the Overton window of "accepted" femme presentations for contemporary US women accompanied by continued body policing and marginalization for presentations outside the norm.

    Binaries, as you say, are unstable, so it's possible that my binary construction of the current binary is unstable, and reality is a complicated blend of 1) and 2) with a dollop of several other things to boot.