Roz Kaveney (rozk) wrote,
Roz Kaveney

A piece of history

There is a case for revising this, but I think I want to post it as I wrote it, about a decade ago. Some of it is dated - I was sniping rather heavily at some people in the trans community at that time and very anxious about the internal politics of the Parliamentary Forum - and obviously I did not know that we would get both a measure of trans law reform and civil partnerships quite as soon as we did. It does not say anything much about trans people of colour - I did not know what to say at that time because the voices that have since appeared were not available to me - and it doesn't address disability or sex work, issues that I would probably more than touch on were I to write it today.

I still think large parts of it stand up, and it addresses some of what I wanted to say at the TransPride conference the other week.

Talking Transgender Politics
Roz Kaveney


The more I think about it, the more I realize that there is a need for a thorough-going discussion of the implications of a specifically transgendered politics, and the way, specifically, that it seems likely to blow wide open traditional transsexual politics. For a long time, because there was so little sense of community among even transsexuals, let alone a broader community of transgendered people, it seemed churlish to complain about the fact that the agenda being promoted by some heterosexually identified, politically main-stream transsexuals did not make all that much sense even in its own terms; that it ran the risk of betraying a lot of transsexuals, let alone any (transgendered) one else. The reformist agenda has become a victim of its own success; it is, I fear, time for some of us to rock the boat.

Much of what follows derives from a list of six axioms on which I believe any workable transgender and transsexual politics has to be based. It is my belief that these are self-explanatory and non-negotiable; they are assumed as such in what follows. They are:
1. Display solidarity with all of our transgender (including transsexual) brothers and sisters.
2. Build alliances by getting involved as ourselves in other areas of politics.
3. Don't let journalistic and intellectual attacks on our community go unanswered; we can have and keep the intellectual and moral high ground.
4. Be creative, be smart, be ourselves and don't let anybody tell us who we are and what we do.
5. Refuse the pathological medical model – we are not sick, just different.
6. Refuse those politics – heterosexism, body fascism – that work against all the above, but most especially against no.1.
These are not outrageously radical suggestions; they do not go on about oppression or elevate victimhood, nor do they necessarily criticize elements of our community. They are, I would argue, versions of the basic maxims of any group on the margins, of any group that needs to ensure its freedom and its self-respect. It is not my intention to accuse anyone of being in possession of false consciousness; I imagine that most of us would regard my maxims, stated in the abstract, as acceptable. And yet a lot of the political, social and cultural strategies considered normative and acceptable by large parts of the transgender community are intrinsically opposed to these maxims. I would argue that, inasmuch as this is the case, those strategies are counter-productive.

In all that follows, transgender is used as an overall and inclusive term, in which transsexual is included along with a lot of other self-naming categories and, presumably, other categories for which no name currently exists. I entirely reject the tendency on the part of some people inside and outside the community to use it simplistically and inaccurately as a synonym for transsexual (usually defined by those who adopt this usage as self-recognizing in a medically or pathologically defined identity, seeking full surgical reassignment and seeking full assimilation in a revised gender role through invisibility), implicitly consigning all other groups to the supposedly inferior category of transvestite.

General position
Some of what follows is a polemic against specific political proposals; much of it is a critique of stock attitudes and language that have characterized our internal dealings. Gayle Rubin1 has suggested that it is dangerous for marginalized groups to try to buy respectability by casting out other communities or a section of their own; historically, those radical transgendered people who worked with the lesbian and gay movement were victimized in precisely this way. It would be ironic if, at precisely the moment when this tactic has been renounced by lesbians and gay men, and they are prepared to work with us again, we were to adopt it ourselves either at their expense or that of sections of our own community.

Instead, we should adopt multi-objective long-term campaigns based on political alliances with other sexual minorities and other groups of the marginalized and oppressed, and abandon the explicit and implicit attitudes that go hand-in-hand with reformist selling out of our own transgendered brothers and sisters. I am not trying to impose my own brand of PC, but just suggesting that words have not only direct meanings but connotative meanings, the standard pile of garbage that ways of putting things bring in their trail.

Passing: invisibility versus acceptance

The reformist transsexual agenda often sets up, as part of its argument, a largely false dichotomy between `people who pass' and the inferior capacity of `people who don't pass'. This automatically knocks a hole in the concept of solidarity, of course; some of us are the sheep and some of us are the goats — and who wants to identify themselves as a goat or as in solidarity with goats? Whenever and wherever this discourse appears, there is the implicit assumption that the rights of those who pass are either somehow more important than the rights of those who do not or that, at least, they are the only rights that can be practically defended in the political and journalistic area and so have to be prioritized.

In pre-political days, which I, at least, am old enough to remember, the community had its own way of conjugating the verb `to pass', which went `I pass all the time; you pass just about enough of the time; she or he is a perfect disgrace with whom it is an embarrassment to be seen'. And, of course, none of us really know that we have passed all the time and for as long as we fetishize the model of passing as the only way to be accepted as who we are, for just that long our self-esteem will be under threat from any small child or gutter journalist who feels like having a go.

Even those of us who do pass, most of the time, or even almost all of the time, must, just as much as those of us who perhaps do not, learn to value ourselves as who we are — and that includes valuing not only our maleness and our femaleness but our transsexuality as well. One of our principal enemies is shame, and setting ourselves up to be disciplined by anyone who wants to name us and shame us is not healthy.

And, to touch directly on policy matters, how does changing our birth certificates and passing and disappearing into the wider community free us from discrimination and oppression? Some bigots, some of the time, will spot us, or think they spot us, and be able to discriminate against us, or anyone else they think is one of us, with impunity, arguing in self-defence that they were doing no such thing. If there is no document that states who we are, our right not to be discriminated against as TS disappears. The possibility, or even probability, that someone passes most of the time is no defence for them on the rare occasions when they do not. You are only as safe as your roughest day.

I have always thought that the idea of disappearing invisibly and living without any contact with one's past life whatever was the sort of self-damaging stuff that some doctor was always going to turn out to have suggested in the first place. We are all of us dependent on other people and on our own pasts – any of us who are interested in doing anything in the world are always sooner or later going to bump into our pasts, so we might as well confront them. This is a personal view, but the campaign for personal invisibility has always struck me as entirely perverse and self-hating. As we used to say in GLF days, we're here – get used to it.

It is less important to pass than to be accepted. If being transgendered is valued as a human variation, then many problems disappear. And it is more likely to be valued if we value it ourselves – being out and proud and prepared to defend ourselves is probably rather less risky than being in the closet, ashamed of our pasts and relying on a piece of paper.

Transgendered people come in all sizes, shapes and flavours; we also exist in four dimensions. One of the reasons for having a big conceptual box like transgender in which to put ourselves is that we are so varied; another is that we each of us are prone to vary across time. Often, to describe oneself simply is to describe a particular moment, to say who we were in a particular year. It is a matter of prudence not to burn bridges that we may, as individuals, find ourselves in need of sooner or later.

Far too often, individual transgender autobiographies, particularly transsexual ones, come across as conversion narratives in which one used, for example, to be a heterosexual transvestite, or a drag hustler, or a radical queen, or a butch, but has transcended this forever and moved into a radically different state. Similarly, activists who have come out of hustling, or drinking, or self-hatred, often talk as if their current state has nothing to do with that which it has set aside. `I once was lost, who now am found / Was bound, who now am free'. Even a butterfly, whose tissues have more or less gone into meltdown, has some somatic features in common with the caterpillar and chrysalis it once was; we talk as if we are changed, changed utterly.

(This also tends to reinforce transference onto any doctors with whom we have to have dealings, and strengthen the medical model. Chris Straayer posed, during the First International Transgender Film Festival, the question of why, in such films as The Christine Jorgensen Story, the normal expectations of the biopic were reversed and the patient acquires protagony (protagonist status). I suggested that it is because such films are conversion narratives, and in them doctors become cognate with divine grace.)

It is because we exist in a time when it is peculiarly perverse to want to cut ourselves off entirely from our individual histories. Our pasts may well have been experienced in an entirely negative and painful way, but identity is in part memory. To abandon those skills we learned in transition, or in our pre-transition past, or to abandon those people, transgendered and otherwise, who gave us support, in the name of an entire revision of ourselves, is to confront an unfriendly world with one hand tied behind our backs. To recommend this as a part of our politics is to betray ourselves. I would never try to prevent anyone pursuing this as an individual goal, but they should not expect encouragement to do so at the expense of the rest of the community, or to be regarded any longer as normative.

Single goal: is it even what we need?

I accept, reluctantly and pragmatically, the superficial attractions for some people of a single-goal campaign aimed at social integration through invisibility. I am cynical enough about the way things work in practice to suspect that many of the advantages suggested by its advocates are in fact illusory or retrograde even in respect of their own stated goals. We cannot claim freedom from discrimination as transsexuals by denying that we are transsexuals. Disappearing into invisibility is escaping, and escaping is running away; and it will fail as a defence from oppression and naming and shaming the moment that someone guesses. They don't have to know, only to guess, which is going to be hard cheese for tall, rugged women and short plump men.

Advocates of invisibility-seeking political strategies often have the intellectual honesty to posit possible negative consequences – except that where they say `might' and `could', I would say `will'. Some of us remember the way that well intentioned doctors used to be even tougher than they are now when it comes to deciding what is appropriate behaviour in our gender of preference and making access to surgery and other aids to transition dependent on meeting their requirements.

I remember when one of my friends had her surgery put back two years because she turned up to see Dr John Randall wearing jeans. I remember when convictions for drug possession or hustling were enough to get people turned off NHS waiting lists altogether. The extent to which this was a matter of social discipline is borne out by the fact that the same people were allowed to see the same doctors as private patients. Do we really want to empower civil servants in this way, enabling them to decide which of us gets new documents and which do not on possibly entirely arbitrary grounds of how we dress, what we do for a living and with whom we sleep?

One of the standard criticisms of our community by lesbian and gay theorists such as Raymond and Altman2 has been that the medical institutions dedicated to gender reassignment are a control mechanism whereby weaker brothers and sisters are filtered out of the lesbian and gay community and into an entire gestalt of social gender control. It would be a serious political mistake on our part to give retrospective aid and comfort to those theorists by accepting constraints on our own diversity, by allowing doctors or anyone else to tell us who we are and ought to be. Contrary to what we are being told by New Labour, rights are not a trade-off with responsibilities. Our right to equality, and our right to what medical assistance we may need to seek that equality, are not contingent on our jumping through hoops.

And of course this particularly applies to those of us who, in order to be politically active, are to that extent out as TS in the first place. I would have thought it improbable that those of us who have been out to the extent of appearing on television or in the newspapers would necessarily be considered priorities for this revision of paperwork. We are, it could be argued, out of our own free will, having decided that defending the rights of our community was more important, as indeed it is, than our integration into a normative society.

To identify the goal of integration into society with disappearing into that society is inconsistent with pursuing any further goals whatever. Those of us who do not accept that particular model of TS and TG goals are going, I assume, to be expected to be workhorses for all future campaigns for the welfare of the whole community.

Bad outcomes

There is also the possibility, if we divert all our energy and all our resources into the single issue of birth certification, that we will lose; that the argument that official documents recording matters of fact have of their nature to be immutable will be held to be more important than our welfare. Do we want to put all of our eggs in that basket?

It may be the case that EU legislation will force ID cards on us; I am personally opposed to this, and will continue to object to it. However, it is quite likely that, should ID cards be imposed, they will make the use of birth certificates when applying for jobs pretty much a thing of the past. In practical terms, it is going to be more important that ID cards match up with our needs and desires than that birth certificates do. It is to be hoped that the Home Office will be as flexible over identity cards as it is over passports. It would be entirely wrong for a particular section of transsexuals to campaign on this issue in a way that deprived other transgendered people of important rights by asking the Home Office to be less flexible rather than more.

And, of course, there is no guarantee that the certification reform would be in and of itself much help in a lot of real situations. You can change your birth certificate in Spain, I believe, but, while you can contract a marriage, your marriage remains voidable by challenge.

Marriage: copping out? selling out?

The only context in which our right to marry is going to exist safely is one that those TSs who identify as simplistically heterosexual are not going to like very much. It is one in which the right to marry, to have one's long-term relationships certified by a rite of passage and the granting of legal recognition, is extended to all couples irrespective of sexuality or birth gender.

At present, there is an imperfect separation of civil marriage as it affects pensions, child-rearing and tax, from the sacraments and rites of Christianity and other religions. When, as seems likely, the special legal position of the Church of England, and of Christianity in general, is removed as part of an ongoing process of constitutional reform, there will be no further need for this to be the case, or for arbitrary dogmas and decrees about the true purpose and nature of sexuality to be guaranteed by law.

I find it unacceptable that those TSs who identify as heterosexual should want their right to be wed to be at the expense of those of us who identify as lesbian and gay; as things stand, we could get married, but only on unacceptable terms. And why should we be asking for a reform that involves special favours when campaigning for an egalitarian marriage law enables us to remain in solidarity with other groups?

Gays, lesbians and solidarity

Speaking for myself as one of the significant minority who identify as lesbians, dykes, gay men and transfags, I slightly resent the assumption that we will always stand in the background or stay away from meetings with MPs who might throw a wobbly at the idea of our existence. We can't be shovelled under the carpet like that — they are, after all, bound to find out sooner or later. The same applies to those of us who have variously disreputable pasts; we are entitled to equal civil rights not for being straight or pretty or respectable or quiet, but because human rights are inalienable. It is true — and moreover I say it all the time — that one catches more flies with honey than with vinegar, but like all proverbs that will only take us so far. As I have said before, human rights are not supposed to be a reward for good behaviour.

While we are at it, indeed, I have also to say that those of us who are straight-identified should not be quite so nervous about forming alliances with lesbians and gay men. A lot of our community are, or at one stage in their life tried to be, lesbians and gay men, and a lot of us have them as a significant part of our affinity group. They have, most of the time, the same enemies as we do; the enemy of my enemy is my friend and we must all hang together or we shall all hang separately. Do you think Dr Adrian Rogers of the Conservative Family Campaign makes a distinction, or that queer-bashers care?

Of course, there is a long history of oppression of our community by the lesbian and gay community — I know all about this, because I was there. The fact that they were persuaded by briefly fashionable damn silly ideas into doing stupid and vicious things is no excuse for our being stupid enough to refuse useful alliances because of damn silly ideas on our side of the question. We need the alliance, basically; and the new pluralism of the 1990s makes that possible. It also makes it possible to have it on equal terms — a lot of people are ashamed of the past, and we no longer have to apologize for ourselves to most of them, or justify our differences from them, when doing business with them. This is a historic opportunity and it would be dumb to pass up on what might not last if we neglect it, or betray it.


An increasing number of jobs involve a medical for medical insurance, in which questions are asked about past extended medical stays. It is by no means certain that the obligation to make full and frank disclosure excludes reassignment surgery, particularly in the case of those of us who had bad post-operative complications. An altered birth certificate will not protect us from dismissal for giving false information in the medical or from the voiding of medical insurance and pension rights on those grounds. I don't pretend to know what the answer is to that particular problem, but it is one with which we are going to have to deal sooner or later – again, our need to deal with this is not served by focusing one single issue of dubious utility. It will not go away because we choose to lock our pasts in a cupboard.

Burn-out: a disadvantage of multi-issue campaigning?

The issue of burn-out is an important one – the fact that we are in the struggle for equality for the long haul does not mean that any of us has individually to be in that struggle for the long haul without let up. None of us is actually indispensable. If we put a lot of our energy into advocating reforms that benefit other groups as well as our own, if we make alliance-building one of our priorities, we ensure that the weight of campaigns is spread.

If, for example, we favour not a bill that seeks to make discrimination against us illegal, but a bill that makes discrimination on a wide set of grounds illegal, and ensure that our interests are specifically included in such a bill, then and to that extent we are behaving with political maturity. If we do not get involved and visible in, say, campaigns around a Bill of Rights, our interests are certain to get neglected or misunderstood, because other people do not live with them in the same way. If we go on campaigning on a broad front, we will be visible, which means that we will automatically recruit new campaigners as we go. When I co-founded Feminists Against Censorship, it was with a view to sticking with it just long enough to achieve short-term goals; after that, I dropped out and left it to newer people to keep going. I was not, much as it pains me to admit it, indispensable.

Against birth certificates

The single-issue campaign in favour of re-certification is objectionable because it is of little practical utility. It cuts us off from participating in reforms that could benefit us and that are being advocated by groups that are prepared to defend our rights, but that are not interested in fighting for what they regard, with some justice, as a solipsistic and retrograde campaign of interest only to us.

Such a campaign has, as one of its premises, the assumption that our acceptance into society should be on society's terms rather than occurring as part of a more general process of persuading society to be a deal less hung-up on other people's business. This premise is implicitly divisive of our community since it creates a hierarchy of those who wish to integrate into society in terms of traditional gender roles, and believe that they can do so, over those of us who do not. Being in solidarity with each other as a community is inherently opposed to privileging one section of the community over another.

To be specific, the remarks one hears from time to time, usually from the pro-re-certification faction, about unnamed MTFs who `look like truckdrivers' are a darkening of counsel, which serves nobody's long-term interests. I would have hoped that at this stage in the 1990s, body fascism would be a thing of the past, but it was noticeable, in von Praunheim's The Transexual Menace, that there was an unspoken privileging of, for example, the thin and beautiful over the fat and homely – to the extent, indeed, that where the thin were allowed the dignity of conversion narrative biographies, the fat were only allowed to ooze oceanically about their current state of mind.
Human rights do not depend on good behaviour; they also do not depend on perfect teeth, hair and nails, or on good dress sense, or on a trim waist or a bushy beard. I am repelled by the fact that we have let the medical model and the heterosexist, looksist agenda that goes with it, persuade us to despise each other and, by doing so, ourselves. We should be, to the extent we can manage, in solidarity with each other, because we need to look after, and be looked after by, each other. And if this is a mixture of hippie sentimentality and old-fashioned leftist moralism, what is so great about the self-aggrandizing individualism of the Thatcher years or the communitarian bullying of New Labour, that we should discard those things?

Final comments

Health care issues are perhaps the one area where we are asking for rights that to a real extent appertain to us and us only. By us, in this context, I do not, let it be clear, mean transsexuals only; other groups of transgendered people have a right to those medical procedures that they need and desire. My own view, which I accept is a highly contentious one, is that a useful analogy is with the defence of abortion rights. Reassignment surgery, like abortion, is directed at enabling individuals to take charge of their lives and to defend their potential; it also involves the permanent closing off of particular avenues of possibility – it is always a serious matter. I would argue, in fact, that the right to own one's own body and one's own mind is intrinsic to the very notion of personal liberty.

Protection from harassment as individuals will almost certainly come about through bills that promote protection generally, into which we have merely to input our particular needs. There is no point in doing this for just a section of our community or believing that undergoing certain medical procedures ought to buy us particular immunity from harassment and assault.
I would add to this the question of defending ourselves as a community from the libels of some feminists on the Left and from the Moral Right; this is a matter of arguing back and not letting the issue drop. We have to be prepared to confront and oppose and reply. Sometimes, but not all of the time, this can be done in co-operation with other groups under attack; sometimes other groups will rush to our defence unasked – this is a good thing and means that sometimes we should be prepared, at least as individuals if not as a community, to return the favour or even anticipate it. We have also to avoid those easy answers to questions about why we exist at all, which offer major hostages to fortune.

Political activity is only partly about ideals; it is also about winning. The struggle for the political and civil rights of minorities can only be fought partly on the basis of demonstrating to people that we are oppressed and that they ought to do something about it. It is also fought by getting together with other minority groups and finding, or creating, common ground in terms of measures that benefit as many people, including us, as possible.

Normalizing ourselves in society at large may be one goal; another goal is to normalize ourselves in the worlds of politics, the arts and intellectual discourse. Those of us who are on the Left need to remind other left-wingers that we are here, and have rights, and have made a contribution; those of us who, for whatever strange reason, are of the Right, will presumably do the same thing.

It is regrettably the case that, in the past, we have asked for our rights on the basis that we are poor pathetic unfortunates who need help. This is disempowering. Actually, of course, we are a community with a lot of remarkable, strong, intelligent, creative and gifted people in it – the reason why we need our rights is that to be denied them cuts us off from our gifts and deprives society of them. The argument for the availability of surgery is not, as it happens, that we are going to go mad without it, but that we will never achieve our full potential without it. We are not wimps and we should not adopt campaigning strategies or goals that make us look like wimps.

A multi-issue approach, which fights for the rights of our whole community rather than a particular section of it, is the only one that will, in the long term, guarantee us something approaching equality and something like acceptance by society on our own terms. Our situation is to a serious extent not one soluble by any sort of quick fix; the quick fix of re-certification of birth and recognition of marriage proposed as a single-issue approach is peculiarly divisive, futile and redundant. We need to participate in the struggle for comprehensive across-the-board anti-discrimination measures and ensure that any such laws specifically include us; we need to join in the struggle for the option of all long-term partnerships to be recognized; we need to join the struggle for an ethic of fair and decent treatment for all in a just society. Why cry for the moon when we can have the stars?

Postscript: transgender as human variation

We need to move away from models of the transgendered condition that pathologize it towards one that express it as part of a standard range of human variation. Even were it to be the case, as some scientists have suggested, that some transgendered people prove to have in common certain features of brain structure, there is no reason to assume that there is only one transsexuality or transgenderedness, or that there are not a variety of routes to the same condition.

Indeed, the evidence of history and anthropology would imply that there is such a variety. In some cultures, transgendered status is simply recognized as a personal attribute; in others, it is achieved as a by-product of religious ecstasy; in yet others, it is an available response to particular social and economic circumstances such as being the daughter and only child of a family whose possessions – herds, say – can only be cared for by someone with customary male status.

In a similar way, the altered state of consciousness in which the body is experienced as not fully connected with the mind is one that may be the product of brain lesions, or of taking certain drugs, or as the desired end result of religious meditation. There is no particular need to pathologize even the first of these three if it does not, ultimately, prevent the individual from functioning; the latter two are clearly not pathological states, though identical with the first which some would hold to be.
Accordingly, we are perhaps best advised to hold back from attempted medical explanations, both because they are not necessarily accurate for each and every individual and because, if generally accepted, they could be used, like the similar attempts to explain male homosexuality in terms of genetics and brain structure, by those, like the former Chief Rabbi of Britain, who would advocate genetic engineering to eliminate sexual deviance. It is my conviction that such programmes would not work, but the attempt to make them work would undoubtedly involve a massive loss of human rights.

If we rely on the idea that we are sufferers from a genetic malfunction to excuse our pathologized condition, those of us who exist in spite of attempts to eliminate us, as a kindness, before birth will perforce be accused of existing out of sheer malign perversity. Again, a politics of being proud of our status as a creative human variation is, in the long term, a strategy far more likely to win us acceptance.

In his Consciousness Explained (1992), Daniel Dennett postulates that consciousness is nothing more than a control mechanism for keeping track of endlessly self-revising sensory drafts, is, to use a metaphor, the tune played between the notes. It can further be logically argued both that Dennett's model of the senses is a limited one – he assumes the standard five and ignores the possibility that, for example, balance and self-maintained body image might be senses within his meaning, and that selfhood might be further constructed upwards from moments of consciousness, identity upwards from selfhood.

Accept these possibilities, and variant modes of consciousness, selfhood and identity, from religious ecstasy through moments of sudden creative insight to transgenderedness, become explicable not as reductive pathologies, but as part of the rich harvest of the evolution of the human brain. In this perspective, and perhaps also in the very different attempt to use the Lacanian psychoanalysis that has so often been used against us – two intellectual strategies that appear at odds, but that some are trying to reconcile – lie positive explanations of our sense of transgendered self considerably less likely to lead to disaster than reductive biologism.


1. Gayle Rubin, `Thinking sex', in Carole Vance (ed.), Pleasure and Danger (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984).
2. See Raymond's The Transsexual Empire (London: Women's Press, 1980) and Dennis Altman's Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation (London: Angus & Robertson, 1972).

This first appeared in Reclaiming Genders - edited by Kate More and Stephen Whittle, published by Routledge in 1999. ffutures did a wonderful job of text-recognition after I got it scanned.
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