June 4, 2013

Moving the Female Goalposts

warrior-princess-coverHow could I not decide to blog today about the Navy SEAL who came out as transgender?

If you haven’t heard the story, there are plenty of news reports out there. In short: retired Navy SEAL Kristin Beck has released a book, Warrior Princess, that chronicles her life hiding from, and ultimately accepting of, her transgender status. It’s noteworthy not only because it’s one more of a growing number of notable trans “coming out” stories this year (the momentum is growing), but also because Bell was a SEAL and therefore shatters the typical stereotypes people hold about transwomen.

Bell’s book sounds like an interesting read. Needless to say, I’ve already purchased the book (Kindle edition) and I will probably blog a review when I finish it. What really prompted me to blog today, though, is not Beck’s story itself, but the reaction to it on the Internet.

Not surprisingly, this story has brought out all the transphobic haters with all of their stereotypes and ignorance. It’s dispiriting to read the comments section of some of the news sites [not that I could stop myself — it’s like rubbernecking a car wreck]. “No matter what he does to change his body, he will always be a man,” said one commenter at the New York Post, a statement that I’ve seen echoed a thousand times today. Or as a commenter at The Huffington Post put it, “He was born with HIM parts. Even though he may have an operation to change the parts is question he will always be a HIM aside from his pretend life.”

… pretend life. Ugh.

One comment that struck me, though, was on the the ABC News report on Beck. The commenter, KT H, had this to say:

Being a Woman is more than just being a Female. It is more than having certain chromosomes and not others. Being a Woman is a sum total of both physical, mental characteristics and life experiences. […] This is not a question of gender which is a very complicated subject. This is me stating that just because he dresses like a woman and gets gender reassignment that does not make him a woman. Has he ever worried about people knowing he’s menstruating, by either the smell or by an accident? Has he ever been passed over for a promotion because he’s a woman, and therefor a man with even less qualifications is seen more fit for the job? Has he ever gone through puberty and worried that his breasts were too big or too small? Has he been given a separate set of rules to live by his entire life just because he was a woman/girl? Does he have the thought processes of a woman? The answer is no.

I know that this thought isn’t original with this post. In many ways it is representative of the general radfem view of transwomen. But KT’s presentation of it struck me today as a good, clear example of it.

The problem with this position is that it is what is called “moving the goalposts,” Effectively, there’s always an attempt to shift the cultural definition of “woman” or “female” to make sure that transwoman do not fit into it. Sometimes they will insist it’s down to chromosomes (confusing biological sex with gender identity). Other times they try to argue it’s a mental disorder (an argument that professional psychiatrists increasingly reject). This argument, though, is moving the goalposts about as far as they can go. Now being a woman isn’t just about gender expression or legal recognition by a court; now, to be a “true” woman, a ciswoman, one must have lived the life from birth. Thus, there is no way any transwoman could ever, ever satisfy this criteria.

The other problem I see in this position is that it holds that there is some supra-definitive female experiential narrative that every ciswoman goes through regardless of her ethnicity, culture, or upbringing. But aren’t our experiences in life what makes us unique? Sure, there are certain commonalities that almost all ciswomen share — menstruation, body development — but not all ciswomen have body image issues, or get passed over for promotions, or gets “given a separate set of rules to live by.” This is a view rooted in the western radfem view of ciswomen.

KT H ends her initial comment by pulling out the old faulty analogy argument we’ve heard before …

Being a woman is a beautiful thing, and if he wants to dress like one, look like one, act like one, more power to him. It doesn’t detract what he has done for his country, but it no more makes him a woman than me gluing feathers to my body and putting a jet pack on makes me a bird.

This is the transphobic equivalent of “If we let men marry men, what’s next? Will I be able to marry my dog?” By comparing Beck’s story with something ridiculous but superficially similar, she belittles the entire concept of transgender. In debate, this is called a false comparison. It’s logically inconsistent.

I don’t know why I do this to myself — read comments sections. I really should know better. They tend to only ever confirm the most negative views I have of my fellow human beings. But I will say this: I was heartened by the number of commentators on the ABC News story (and other sites) who supported Beck, who fired back at commentators like KT H, and who generally made it feel like there’s some progress being made.

No Comments

  • “to be a “true” woman, a ciswoman, one must have lived the life from birth.” – Yes, I would agree that is the view of many radical feminists – myself included. And trying to disprove it through exceptions is a no-starter with me. I may have never been able to get pregnant, but that doesn’t mean I never had pregnancy scares, tried to become pregnant, tried to control my fertility, etc. And even women who never had an interest in having children will have an understanding of these things that someone who wasn’t born with the same parts or brought up with the same expectations. It’s not right or wrong or hateful or anything else – it just is.

    Likewise, you as a trans* person have your own experience and your own struggles that I will never understand as someone who hasn’t lived them. And pointing that out to me wouldn’t be a hateful (or “phobic”) statement on your part.

    I take issue, though, with you classifying this as “transphobic”: “Being a woman is a beautiful thing, and if he wants to dress like one, look like one, act like one, more power to him. It doesn’t detract what he has done for his country, but it no more makes him a woman than me gluing feathers to my body and putting a jet pack on makes me a bird.” … This poster has just said that people should have the freedom to act and look however they like (unless, I’m assuming, it harms someone else or limits their freedoms). That is the exact opposite of hateful/phobic. It’s very accepting.

    You don’t need to agree with everything to be accepting.

    • Thank you for the well-reasoned response.

      The knee jerk “Well, what if I want to be a chicken / unicorn / Superman!” response that so many people have to trans stories *is* transphobic. It’s a belittling dismissal of the trans experience that mocks it by making the false comparison to something the speaker sees as clearly ridiculous. Unfortunately, by making that snarky bird remark, she deflates the message that precedes it.

      I have no problem with someone disagreeing with the trans position, so long as they are respectful. But I have no tolerance for the “Fine, what if I want to be an X?” fallacy.

  • Respectfully, there in fact *are* people who sincerely identify as some of those things. In fact, a man was profiled on National Geographic’s Taboo tonight who truly identifies as a dog. Take a look at this clip – I really am interested in your take on it: http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/taboo/videos/im-a-dog/ – you can see more of him on his youtube channel, http://www.youtube.com/user/boomermutt . I’m bringing it to your attention because to my ears, his arguments sound very similar to some I hear coming from the trans* community. So it may have sounded snarky to you, but to someone else, it’s sincere. My former stepdaughter had friends who identified as transspecies (and I’m not making that word up).

    • I am familiar with otherkin. I’ve even known a few. If I thought for a second that she was sincerely referencing otherkin, I wouldn’t be so harsh on her view. But I bet my bottom dollar that KT has never heard of otherkin, or that if she has, she finds them equally ridiculous as she finds transwomen. She’s not sincerely referencing otherkin, she’s making a mocking statement about glued feathers and jetpacks.

      As for my own take on otherkin, I would no more conflate gender identification with species identification then I would gender identification with sexual orientation, a problem that has plagued the trans community for decades. Which is the other problem with her comment: besides being belittling, it’s falsely comparing gender identity with another unrelated identity marker.

  • You assert the two are different, but I’d be interested to hear a reason why. If I’m asked to take you at your word that you feel like a woman therefore you are one, why shouldn’t I take Boomer at his word that he is a dog because he feels like one?

    • Because one is gender and one is not? Seems pretty clear to me. Again, it’s the same as conflating, for example, “gay” with “transgender.” Transgender women get that all the time when we come out to people: “Oh, that means that you’re gay?” Or even the gay marriage retort of “Well, then can I marry a goat?” They’re responses of either flat-out misunderstanding, or they’re deliberately meant to belittle and degrade.

      I would also note that gender identity disorder / gender dysphoria is a defined diagnosis that appears in both the DSM-5 and the ICD-10. It’s had at least half a decade of scientific research applied to it, including mounting evidence that there may very well be a biological component to the condition. It is a general consensus opinion that the treatment of gender dysphoria includes transition. In other words, it has achieved a level of scientific legitimacy.

      To date, otherkin have not achieved that level of validity. As far as I can find in PubMed, there has been no peer reviewed literature produced about transspecies or species dysphoria at all. They have begun organizing support organizations (like this one) and perhaps one day they will build the kind of evidence, literature, and recognition that transgender has. But they’ve got a long way to go.

      What’s really intriguing is how both ideas may fall under the broader question of dysphoria as a general psychological phenomenon, and how it may relate to things like transhumanisn or even body dysmorphic disorder. I don’t know that anyone has taken such a meta look at things yet, but it would be something I’d be interested in reading if they have.

      As for Boomer: I’m not religious, but in terms of moral philosophies I’ve always been fond of the Wiccan Rede: “An it harm none, do as ye will.” If living that way brings him happiness, who are we to judge?

  • I’m aware of the DSM conversations, and while it is in there, it remains controversial among licensed therapists (I do have a limited license, for matters of disclosure). I have spoken with people with body dysmorphic disorder who say also feel that something is wrong with their body and needs to be corrected, but surgery is not recommended for that. A lot of therapists do question the validity of GID/GD in light of that.

    Getting things set down in the DSM* is as much a political process as anything – the recent squabbles over the DSM-V should make that clear. It’s not just gender-related diagnoses that are questioned. Dissociative identity disorder (aka “multiple personalities”) is questioned as much, if not more, as is the phenomena of recovered memories. And with each rewrite, things that were once accepted disappear. Remember passive-aggressive, self-defeating or sadisitic personality disorders? Not there anymore. And most famously, homosexuality was once listed but hasn’t been for decades. With the recent release, Asperger Syndrome no longer exists as a diagnosis. Talk about fluid and/or moving targets!

    So while I find the DSM* to be a useful tool to communicate clusters of symptoms with others and to find information on useful treatment techniques and theories, I don’t take a listing in that book as gospel truth or proof that something is what the book says it is just because it is in there. Truthfully, perhaps it’s most useful application is insurance company coding so that sessions can be covered on health plans.

    As far as “who are we to judge” – well, I could argue that you have. You sound like you’re saying that someone self-identifying as transspecies is less valid than someone self-identifying as transgender. But from my vantage point, the arguments are eerily similar.

    • If you consider pointing out evidential and recognitional differences between the two topics to be “judging,” then I probably don’t have the ability to convince you otherwise.

      And yes, I am aware that diagnoses change as the DSM and ICD are revised. That’s part of the process: things are classified, studied, re-classified, etc. That refinement of knowledge is at the heart of the scientific method. Trying to downplay the legitimacy of the DSM simply because it isn’t Biblical in its fixed authority is pretty bold considering it remains one of the standards of the profession. ICD is the gold standard worldwide, but DSM is likewise influential and important.

      • Yes and no. Believe me, I truly, madly, deeply believe in the value of the therapeutic process. I’m invested in it. But I don’t think the diagnostic criteria in the DSM are anything like the diagnostic criteria for things such as influenza, cancers, etc. One is far, far more subjective than the other. A germ is a germ, no matter how you feel about it, and it can be measured and quantified and studied. It’s much, much harder to do that with something like emotions without biases coming into play. It’s not really bold to say these things, either. It’s discussed pretty openly in professional circles.

        • And yet the DSM is what we have, and it’s the best we can come up with, and it is relied upon within the field, unless you know of a more credible and authoritative source to reference. ICD is about the only thing that might stand above it, but ICD has the same diagnostic information, more or less, concerning GD.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *