BC on Gender: Why do We Need Labels?

An Epiphany

While eating lunch the other day with a co-worker, I had an epiphany.

As often happens with me, my co-worker and I began debating the meaning of gender. We seemed to agree that the idea of the essential characteristics of gender were almost certainly uncodifiable, but from there, we disagreed about the the value of the label itself. If an F2M transgenderist declares himself a man, how much effort should a society go through to acknowledge that declaration?

For my co-worker, the blanket acknowledgement of that declaration is uninteresting. Although he is sympathetic to transgenderism, he feels that the far more engaging question is this: What does the label mean to the people who use them? He argues, for example, that if a label is used to discriminate against people, then the discrimination is more important than the label. Let me explain this with an example: Suppose a F2M transgenderist is in a meeting with an conservative religious official discussing the TG's desire to marry a woman in church. Let us suppose further that the religious official views the TG as a woman, and that same-sex marriages are not allowed according to this church's doctrine. For my coworker, the central issue in this example is not whether or not the TG is a man; the issue is whether or not the church's discrimination is valid. Of comparable interest is why the TG wants to take on the label of "man". "Is this person a man?" is not a question that carries much interest.

While having this discussion, I finally managed to piece together some things that had been puzzling me about gender identities and labels.

Terri Webb

Terri Webb is a post-operative M2F transsexual who has recently questioned the legitimacy of transsexualism and the validity of transgender activism. She writes:

I the early 1980s, I, with so many other transsexuals, advocated legal reform to secure equal rights. I sought, for instance, the 'right' for transsexuals to change their birth certificates in order to achieve legal recognition in their reassigned sex. Over the years, as a result of a combination of 'common sense' and the force of the arguments put to me by feminist friends and feminist theorists, I have been forced to drop my demands one by one. 1

Now, Terri suggests, she is merely a man masquerading as a woman. To this end, Terri feels that the bulk of transgender activism is misguided. She writes, for example:

I know one doesn't have to accept a sexist definition of society in order to contemplate marriage, but in this case why get married? As far as I know all the advantages of marriage could be covered by a civil contract that any competant solicitor could draw up. [...]

If there is a case for demanding equality in marriage then legislation along the Dutch lines, which allows homosexual and lesbian marriage, would appear to meet transsexual demands. Interestingly, this proves not to be so when the option is pointed out to transsexuals. This strengthens my opinion that what so many transsexuals are after is the legitimisation of fantasy rather than civil rights. 2

Basically, Webb believes that TG rights issues are reducible to specific discriminations, and if we can eliminate those discriminations, then gender is a moot point. Although Webb's reasoning is rational, I think it's missing something: something about people's feelings. Webb obfuscates this missing piece by calling it "fantasy", and implicating it in the sex-role stereotyping of women.

Gender Labels and French Fries

Let me try to use an analogy: suppose a particular menu specifies that a hamburger comes with a choice of french fries or salad. Now imagine a conversation something like this:

I'll have the hamburger with french fries, please.

I'll bring you salad, instead. It costs the same.

I'd rather have the fries.

The salad costs the same. It's not going to change your bill.

I don't want the salad. Bring me the fries.

The salad is healthier for you.

To me, this conversation is silly. And yet, I think a big part of the inability to communicate a transgender perspective involves the inability to say, "we prefer french fries; they make us happy." The problem with abstract concepts like happiness is that people don't think in the abstract very well. For the average person, a statement such as "XYZ makes me happy" has no meaning -- what does one do with a piece of information like that? It is easier to deal with a tangible concept like legal marriage rights, or birth certificates.

For some reason, as a society, we tend to think of the tangible concepts as "rational" and emotional reactions as "irrational". Recently, however, I've learned to appreciate that emotional reactions serve as valid premises to logical arguments; logic says nothing about the state of the premises. Michael Gilbert argues that, in a sense, "'rational' is often used as an honorific, and more importantly, as a way of negating and/or trivializing modes of argument not in keeping with one arguer's precepts. This sense requires the rational person to think in a certain, generally logical, way and adhere to standards of evidence, deduction and reasoning established by a tradition that is heavily scientific, rationalist, and male-dominated." 3

Let's return to our example of the F2M transsexual and the conservative religious official. Suppose you could convince the religious official that same-sex marriages were valid within that religious creed, and suppose the religious official agreed to marry the F2M transsexual and his female partner, with the understanding that this was a lesbian marriage. Would this give the F2M TS what he wanted? For Terri Webb, the answer appears to be yes. But I'm not convinced. You see, the TS would have sacrificed some personal happiness: the happiness derived from being accepted as a man.



Pleasure and Fantasy


One of the themes that recurs in Spider Robinson's stories is the difference between pleasure and happiness. I believe that Terri Webb makes a similar mistake. For Terri, TG happiness involves fantasy fulfillment, an attitude that seems to reflect a feminist fascination with psychoanalysis, 4 which posits that the phallus is the source of pleasure and that men punish women because women represent castration anxiety. Webb also argues that men envy women's reproductive abilities 5.

For my part, I reject psychoanalysis because of its universalist ideology. However, what motivates us to develop identifications is an enigma that is central to all kinds of discourse. From the perspective of cognitive psychological theory, the number of "things" that the human brain is capable of dealing with is seven, plus or minus two. However, the number of "things" is not a function of the semantic complexity of an individual thing. Our brains abstract individual things based on common traits. Perhaps the need that we have to develop gender identifications is motivated by our brains' tendancy to abstract.

Whatever the reason is, I argue that a TG's desire to claim a gender identity is valid, whether or not it can be rationalised, or explained in tangible terms.

1 Terri Webb, "Autobiographical Fragments from a Transsexual Activist", Blending Genders, p. 190.

2 ibid. pp. 191-192. Webb makes a lot of statements (such as "this proves not to be so when pointed out to transsexuals") about transsexual attitudes toward civil rights, and provides no references or evidence for these statements. We are required, it seems, to take her at her word.

3 Michael A. Gilbert, "Coalescent Argumentation: An Overview"

4 Webb does not state the basis of the claim that transgender identity is rooted in fantasy and that fulfillment of that fantasy perpetuates mysogyny.

5 "Autobiographical Fragments", p. 191.

Copyright © 1996 by B.C. Holmes. Last updated October 28th, 1996.

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