B.C. on Gender: The Pomo Trannie FAQ

Okay, let's face it. Everyone's getting in to the FAQ business these days.

Also, recently, I've discovered that some people -- some of my closest friends, in fact -- are still confused about transgenderism and postmodernism. So, welcome to the Pomo Trannie FAQ, where I'll answer all those questions that I'm pretending that people are asking me!


Q: What is transgenderism?

A: My definition of transgenderism is this: transgenered people are people who feel that they fall outside of traditional ideas about gender and who feel that that's important enough in their lives that they choose to call themselves transgendered.

Q: What is postmodernism?

A: Wow. That's a hard question. Postmodernism is a philosophy that is used to look at the world in a new way. The goal is to become aware of some unspoken assumptions in the way that everyone sees the world.

Let me paint a rather imperfect analogy: think of those optical illusions, like the one with the old had and the woman. Sometimes, in order to see "the other image", you have to get yourself in the right frame of mind. Postmodernism is similar. It attempts to get you into a frame of mind that allows you to see our world in a different way.

Riki Anne Wilchins has a funny definition of postmodernism.

Q: How does postmodernism relate to gender?

A: Well, that's also a hard question.

Basically, we assume that there's two parts to gender: there's the real biological differences -- like X and Y chromosomes -- and there's all kinds of "cultural knowledge" about gender -- like the idea that men like football and women like flowers.

Postmodernism tries to look at all the "cultural knowledge" and ask "where did this knowledge come from?" Did we make it up? Does everyone have this knowledge hard-coded into our brains? Or have we been subtly taught that knowledge?

And if we have been taught that knowledge, then how do we know that it's true?


Q: So do you believe that biological categories of "male" and "female" are real?

I believe that there are objective biological differences between people that relate to genitals, hormones, reproductive capabilities, secondary sexual characteristics and genes (and perhaps some other stuff). In many people, we observe congruence amongst these categories. We observe, for example, that people with vaginas tend to have high levels of estrogen.

If we were so inclined, we could define all the people who have a certain configuration of these biological traits "male" and all the people who have a different configuration of these biological traits "female", and all of the others "intersexed".

I prefer not to, and there's two reasons for this.

  1. There's no common, agreed-to definition about which precise traits need to be present, even though many people think that there is.
  2. While such definitions are useful (say, in scientific research) they are often misused, or used in hurtful ways. Definitions, especially definitions that originate in scientific research, tend to leak out into the "real" world, and get used in ways that they were never intended. For example, Androgen Insensitive women get excluded from women's sports events because they "are really men."

Also, it does seem to me that deciding which particular configurations get to be called "male" is a bit arbitrary, anyway, so I bristle when people say that "maleness" is objectively determined. See my discussion about sex and gender for more information.

Q: But what about other differences between men and women? Aren't they also caused by biology?

There are many claims about other so-called differences between men and women: some claim that men are biologically wired to have "better" visualization skills and women are biologically wired to have "better" language skills. Generally these claims aren't well-supported by research. The claims may be true, in fact, but the research to date is quite spotty.

What's more, I believe that this type of research will be spotty for quite some time. Because we are immersed in a culture that is so obsessed about gender, scientists tend to be blind to certain biases that they have when they try to look at gender objectively. In fact, sex/gender research is plagued with methodological problems.

Q: What about that famous John/Joan case? Doesn't that prove that people's sense of themselves as "male" or "female" is biological?

John/Joan (whose real name is David Reimer) was a male whose penis was destroyed during a botched circumcision. Several months later, after contacting the sex/gender researcher Dr. John Money, David's parents started raising him as a girl. David didn't take to being raised as a girl, and after finding out about his history, went back to living as male.

Dr. Money has long been identified with the opinion that gender is learned, and that a male reared as female will identify as female. Now, many people are pointing to David Reimer's case and saying that Dr. Money must have been wrong, and therefore gender must be biologically determined. Maybe that's true, but there are a few facts to this case that should be considered:

First, David Reimer was raised by parents who knew his birth sex.  It is impossible to determine the effect that their knowledge had on him.

Second, David Reimer was 21 months old when the gender reassignment took place; thus, for the first 21 months of his life, he was being raised as a male.

At about the same time that the truth about the John/Joan case came to light, there was another case reviewed in the July, 1998 issue of Pediatrics. This other case is very similar to David Reimer's case, but the age of the child at the time of reassignment was 7 months. This other subject is comfortable in her role as a woman. One might therefore conclude that Dr. Money was essentially right, but he was off by a few months. Or one might conclude that one or both of these cases are statistically anomalous. We just don't know for sure.

One conclusion is clear from David Reimer's case, though: it is abhorrent to try to perform gender "reassignments" on people without their consent, even if you think it's in their best interests.

Q: But what about that BrainSex book?

It's trash.


Q: So what about gender identities?

A: Ah! Now we're on to identities.

Identity is a major concept in postmodernism (and cultural theory). Really cool writers such as Homi Bhabha and Michel Foucault have written about it.

Basically, the main question to ask is "where do our identities come from"? The philosopher, Martin Heidegger, suggested that we can identify only identify ourself through difference. Foucault argues that identity is a tool of power and discrimination -- that people assume the identity of "white" only to oppress the "blacks".

And Riki Anne Wilchins <swoon> says that identities are a "seduction of language, constantly urging you to name the constiuency you represent, rather than the oppressions you contest. It is through this Faustian bargain that political legitimacy is purchased." What does she mean by that? She means that when we take on identities, we take our mind off of the stuff that's impeding us, and shift our focus on to our own communities.

And one of the yucky consequences of that shift is usually in-fighting (which the TG community has seen in abundance). We start to use identity as a political tool, and find some more marginalized members of our own community to bear the burden of our victimization.

Q: But isn't "transgender" an identity?

A: Yes, unfortunately, it is in many ways.

Something that I fail to externalize in enough ways is that I really like the word "transgendered" because it's an adjective. Nouns like "transgenderist", "cross-dresser", and "transsexual", in my mind, reinforce the primacy of that one difference by turning it into an identity. I am a transgendered person, and I am a science-fiction-reading person, and a postmodernist-thinking person and an anal-retentive person and a polyamorous person and a pro-feminist person and a kinda-left-wing-leaning person.

But, if "transgendered" has meaning for me, it describes the allies that contest the oppression of and violence against gender transgression. For me, it doesn't mean that a transgendered man or a drag queen and I are united by common experience -- cultural theorists like Homi Bhabha think of this as the "originary past"; rather, it means that we share a similar disgust at the way gender difference is treated in our culture.

Q: So do you think it's wrong to have simple "male" or "female" identities?

A: Urk. No, not precisely.

I don't have a problem with people choosing an appearance, a behaviour, a mode of dress and presentation that fit in to mainstream notions of gender. I wish there were fewer, and I question people a lot on why they choose mainstream gender presentations -- I even evangelize. But it's not my place to tell people that they have to change; that'd be the height of arrogance.

Copyright © 1999, 2000 by B.C. Holmes. Last updated April 26th, 2000.
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