Sex Changes [takes] the radical position that diversity in gender identity, opposition to normative notions of social sex-roles, and even “anomalies” in genetic sex are natural and universal phenomena, a rich and valuable part of human physicality and society.Patrick Califia’s Sex Changes: Transgender Politics is one of the most informative and eye-opening books about gender I have ever come across – I cannot thank Cass enough for recommending it to me. What Patrick Califia (who is himself a FTM transgender person) does here is attempt to write a history of transgenderism and its social and political implications. Sex Changes is not meant to be a history since the dawn of time; rather, it goes back to the moment when transgenderism first began to enter mainstream consciousness with the first medical ‘case studies’. This is followed by the first transgender biographies, the subsequent backlash, the more recent biographies that rewrite the narrative of the “pathologic” trans person in a far more positive light, and the eventual beginnings of the trans community as it exists today.
Sexual Changes raises a lot of questions, particularly about what exactly transgenderism is. The main answer I took away from this book is that it’s not a monolith – there is no universal trans experience, no single story, no one valid way of experiencing gender dysphoria. I also learned that certain authors, such as Kate Bornstein or Jan Morris, have wondered about the extent to which transgenderism is a product of our current rigid gender binary. In a more flexible world, would gender dysphoria exist at all? Or would people feel comfortable with their gender of birth if this was defined more flexibly? However, others writers, like Margaret Deidre O’Hartigan, have pointed out that these questions are in fact very dismissive of the overwhelming experience of alienation from her own body that preceded her sex change. She also problematises the term “transgender” as opposed to “transsexual” – like me, she sees gender as a social construct; therefore it isn’t really her gender but her sex that she changed.(“Transgender” is the term Califia most frequently uses, though, so I’ll continue to use it myself throughout this post.)
The existence of transgender people raises a lot of questions for which there are no easy or comfortable answers – which perhaps goes some way towards explaining the horrifying hostility and violence with which they have been and sadly continue to be treated. What does transgenderism mean in the context of our current definitions of gender? What do I mean when I say I’m not a gender essentialist? Reading Sex Changes enlarged my mental categories, and I can’t say how much appreciate that. It also caused me to clarify my ideas about questioning the gender binary and how to do so is not necessarily about erasing identities at all.
What I mean is that as much as I have struggled with gender throughout my life, feminine identity is a part of who I am. I just want to define it on my own terms, and I don’t want to have it be nearly as momentous in my life as the whole world seems to be convinced it needs to be. But that aside, yes, I am a woman. I have always felt myself to be a woman and I have always been comfortable with this fact. It isn’t femininity in itself that weighs me down – it’s the fact that so many different definitions of “woman” are imposed on me by outsiders. My lack of gender essentialism, then, is not so much about erasing the categories of “male” and “female” as it is about challenging the way we currently define them. It’s about making them far more flexible and less dominating, as well as not the only categories we recognise. In addition to being a continuum, gender doesn’t need to be the main thing that defines who we are. But none of this necessarily has to do with feeling that your body and your identity are mismatched, and nothing gives me the right to dismiss or attempt to explain away people who do feel that way. (Of course, I’m not saying that alienation from your body is the one feeling that defines transgenderism, which goes back to the whole point about there not being a single story or experience.)
Sex Changes is full of examples of appalling violence against trans people – stories like Brandon Teena’s or Tyra Hunter’s are relatively well-known, but there are countless others: sadly the numbers speak for themselves. One thing that surprised me, though, were the innumerable examples of transphobia among feminists and glb folks (perhaps this is naïve of me, I know). It was sad to see people who might make natural allies for trans people react to them with particular virulence. I’d had a glimpse of this in Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For, but Califia’s examples are worse than anything I could have imagined. Particularly upsetting was seeing feminists use arguments against trans people that seemed straight out of a Victorian treatise on gender. As Califia puts it,
The plight of transsexual lesbians highlights an ideological double-bind. Feminists cannot have it both ways. If we are going to claim that biology is not destiny and present a political analysis of gender as something that is socially constructed, we have to make room in our world view for women who were not born with XX chromosomes. To do otherwise is to subscribe to biological determinism, the regressive belief that our genetic structures determine our potential as human beings, and the notion that biological sex can be used as a justification for placing limits upon the freedom, intellectual abilities, and creative talent of women.This is not meant a stab at feminism as a whole, of course. And if the feminist blogosphere is anything to go by (which I fully believe it is), things have certainly improved since the days of Janice Raymond’s horrifying The Transsexual Empire, especially among younger feminists. Nevertheless, this attitude does exist still, and Raymond herself has not changed her views on transgenderism.
When it comes to hostility among the glb community, Califia gives the example of academics appropriating trans historical figures by claiming these people were “really” only living under the opposite gender as a way to avoid homophobia. For all we know there might very well have been cases in which this was true, but the point is exactly that we can’t know. Therefore, there is no reason at all to use these stories to demean or explain away another identity, which unfortunately has often been the case.
Another thing I loved about Sex Changes was Califia’s sex-positive approach. He has a lot to say about the fact that the sexuality of transgender people has been downplayed to “lift it” above so-called paraphilias. Naturally this has consequences for the sexual and romantic lives of transgendered people, which is especially unfortunate because things really don’t have to be that way.
As Cass told me, anyone with an interest in gender or in glbtq issues should get a hold of this book. It’s informative, challenging and mind-expanding. I couldn’t ask for more.
More interesting passages:
The violence, discrimination and hatred heaped upon differently-gendered people is an enormous wrong. This bigotry will stop only when the rest of “us” are able to accept our own gender conflicts and pinpoint our own prejudices about biological sex and social sex-roles. This book was written with the hope that someday gender will be a voluntary system for self-expression, used chiefly to enhance the pleasure we take in one another’s unique realities.(Have you posted about this book? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)
In order to be a woman, you simply have to get yourself defined as “not-male”. Although there’s an enormous amount of effort involved in presenting a feminine image, that energy is not recognised as real work or as an indication of any sort of serious talent or intelligence. To be recognised as a man, you have to emphatically and publicly reject femininity, but you also have to strive for that recognition. We say “Be a man” in a way that we would never say “Be a woman”.
We need to question the so-called experts who are so quick to pathologize behaviour or self-concepts that are not inherently self-destructive and don’t necessarily interfere with people’s ability to love or pleasure one another. We can only do that if we jettison our own guilt and apply the same intellectual standards we would apply to a piece of research in the field of astronomy or physics.
Few of us are even aware of the pervasive rewards and punishments that shaped our gender identities—unless that process was not successful. I suspect that much of the hatred and fear of transsexuals is based on the discomfort that others experience when they are forced to recall the pain of involuntary gender conditioning. It is easier to believe we never had a choice about something so fundamental than to process and accept the fact that the choice was taken away from us and ruthlessly suppressed.