Sunday, July 23, 2017

Of course you can feel like a girl: Reflections on a recent anti-transgender essay

Jamie Shupe made history in June 2016 in becoming the first person in the United States to have a legally designated "non-binary" gender identity, represented on an identity card issued by the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles. Shupe was born male and today prefers not to be classified as either male or female and wants to be referred to with the pronoun "they" rather than "he" or "she."

Image by "j bizzie." Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Shupe does not see eye-to-eye with people who choose to transition from one gender to another, although Shupe personally attempted a male-to-female transition for several years before settling on a non-binary identity. In a nearly 11,000-word essay "You Can't Feel Like a Girl," posted July 22, 2017 to a blog called "First, Do No Harm: Youth Gender Professionals" with the tagline "Professionals Thinking Critically about the Youth Transgender Narrative," Shupe tears into transgender people and their care providers. Everyone deserves to have their personhood taken seriously. That said, Shupe's argumentation in this essay does not need to be seriously entertained. The essay has no identifiable structure, apparently missing an introduction, conclusion, and section breaks, which makes it more of a rant. It has an infinitude of typos, suggesting a lack of editorial input from a second party.

The rant includes a lot of personal information, including Shupe's declaration that they have "Complex PTSD" and probably "Asperger's" and implying their disappointment that, after taking female hormones for the past four years, they still haven't achieved the body transformation results they hoped for. "None of it made me look like a female. Whatever changes you’re supposed to get are supposed to happen in the first three years," they say. Shupe never had genital surgery and is happy about that. It seems that Shupe does not, today, have much contact with people who identify as transgender. Shupe refers to people who have transitioned from male to female as "surgery queens," as here — "The surgery queens aren’t proper role models for these trans children. They’re what they get to see at the circus" — and as "monsters," as here — "Trans women are like the beast Cerberus, the monstrous multi-headed dog that guards the gates of the Underworld to prevent the dead from leaving." Thus, while Shupe styles themselves in this essay as someone who can give "insider" criticism because they attempted a male-to-female transition for some years, I'd argue that in certain respects they can only give "outsider" criticism about transgender lives. Using their invective as a reference point, I surmise they're not actively involved in transgender community or organizing and may currently not have a lot of transgender friends or acquaintances with whom they dialogue on these topics. The essay fails to explicitly acknowledge and identify the line between what they do and don't know from personal experience.

Some text is hyperlinked to questionable sources but there are no footnoted citations. Shupe says that their experience comes from reading endless mass media articles. In their words,

"due to my narrow interests and the fact that I have nothing better to do as a retired person, I’ve spent every day of the last four years studying transgenderism through the lens of media articles. I don’t have much use for academia or it’s [sic] articles. I like to see what institutions like the Daily Mail have to say about people like me. It’s not uncommon for me to get 100 Google email alerts per day for keywords like transgender or gender dysphoria. That’s how I spend my days."

It's a fine hobby, but it's unlikely to result in a high-quality essay. If one deliberately restricts one's reading to what is scrawled on the Internet in brief articles for informal consumption, studiously avoids anything that smacks of "academia," and apparently doesn't have conversations with the groups described in those articles because one believes they are monstrous, then one's arguments on that topic are less likely to be rigorous.

If you make it to the end of the rant, you finally see a statement of purpose in the final paragraph: "This is my coming out as a TERF and a SWERF." These terms are not defined within the essay, but they stand for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist and Sex-Worker-Exclusionary Radical Feminist, i.e. someone who identifies as a feminist but rejects the claims of transgender people and sex workers as valid concerns for feminists and who generally takes the opposite position on social and political issues that those groups would take. Shupe's position here is consistent with the title of their blog post: They believe a boy can't coherently say that they "feel like" a girl. A boy can feel feminine, but the boy remains a boy or perhaps third-gender and is not, and will never be, a girl. An important theme of this essay is that, since binary gender transition is invalid (in Shupe's estimation) for people of all ages, healthcare professionals should especially avoid putting gender-variant children on the path of medical transition. Shupe says that "these charlatans deserve to be fired at best and jailed at worst" and twice names a particularly well-respected children's endocrinologist as a "monster."

Shupe claims to be a better role model for gender-variant children than a gender-transitioned person can be, on the basis of their assertion of some kind of emotional superiority. Shupe says that all the emotional difficulty they've experienced in life has been caused by external sources (discrimination, shaming, etc.) and that they have never been suicidal, whereas people who go through gender transition have emotional difficulties that arise from the inside and they tend to be suicidal. There seems to be a lack of introspection and analysis here. Everyone has an inside and an outside, and our feelings arise from complex interactions in our inner and outer worlds. One should be skeptical of a person's claim that all their negative emotions were the result of others dumping those feelings nonconsensually into them. If you discover yourself to have become a reservoir for other people's toxins, you are still responsible for processing it and overcoming it, and whether and how you do it affects whether you are a good emotional role model for others. You can't say: There's toxic crap inside me but I didn't put it there so I'm not responsible for it. Nor can you point at others and say: They put their own toxic crap inside themselves and they must assume full responsibility for it. Furthermore, it isn't obvious that never having been suicidal in the first place makes one a better role model than having suffered with suicidal thoughts and still being alive — especially not for people who are suicidal and would like a role model who has dealt with that. And since Shupe says that transition promotes self-hate in transgender people, it isn't clear how Shupe managed to personally avoid this pitfall when they attempted transition.

Shupe says several times that transgender women are not "real" women. The argument? People who were born male can never menstruate or give birth. This overlooks the obvious, common counterobjection that fertility can't be the essential definition of a woman since many people born female are never fertile. (It would be best to avoid essentialist definitions altogether and admit there is no one essential thing that defines womanhood or manhood, but we cannot hope for too much in a rant.) Shupe goes on to say that the idea of "feeling like a girl" is incoherent; there can only be "feeling feminine." This is where the title of the essay comes from. Unfortunately, it overlooks that there are multiple ways of being feminine (some of them culturally specific) and that they can overlap with ways of being masculine. For example, nurturing can be interpreted as both feminine and masculine. Femininity and masculinity are not always polar opposites, so they are subject to interpretation. I believe that Shupe's thesis makes an incorrect claim here. It is possible to feel like a man or a woman. What that means is that you want to be seen as a man or a woman, no matter what gin joint in the world you walk into, no matter if you're feeling a bit more or less feminine or masculine than usual. You may feel very feminine and want to express your femininity and be perceived as feminine, yet you still want to be seen as a man. You may feel very masculine and want to express your masculinity and be perceived as masculine, yet you still want to be seen as a woman. The gender is a convenient box that you don't mind fitting into on a regular basis because it feels accurate or useful. That's what it means to feel like a man or woman. It's entirely reasonable to feel that way. Many people have that feeling about the sex with which they were born, and they are generally known as cisgender; a relatively smaller number of people have that feeling about the other sex, and they are known as transgender, and they are entitled to have that feeling, too. If Shupe's argument rests on people needing to acknowledge and accept the sex they were born as, then Shupe needs to reconsider their own choice to legally designate their gender as non-binary. That would be consistent only if Shupe were born intersex, which does not seem to be the case.

In one place, Shupe implies that children's gender transition is an attempt to straighten out gay kids. ("They can’t be gay, so they’re being surgically made straight instead.") There's no further discussion on this point, which is unfortunate. Many people who outwardly seem heterosexual before their transition will identify as more homosexual after their transition, as the object of their affections does not change. For other people, sexual orientation does shift during and after gender transition, and many transgender people partner with each other. As far as I know, most prepubescent children don't yet assert a sexual orientation at all, so it isn't clear what adult would be so distressed by a small child's apparent gayness (read: gender expression) that they would try to straighten out the child by changing their physical sex rather than by disciplining their gender expression. This just doesn't seem realistic. I don't think most parents who embrace their child's transgender identity do so because they are homophobic. That doesn't seem typical.

Shupe uses language that implies that transition is something that a doctor does to a transgender person. Language of autonomy — transition is something one chooses and does for oneself — is lacking. In Shupe's essay, transition is also treated as entirely medical, whereas in real life, there is an important social aspect. Throughout history, some individuals have always managed to achieve a complete binary transition without hormones or surgery because they happened to pass very well. That remains possible today. Some people just put on the clothes of the opposite sex and immediately pass. Shupe does not acknowledge this in their essay, probably because they are primarily upset about irreversible medical intervention. Would Shupe accept other people's binary gender transition if they managed to accomplish it without medical intervention or with mild or reversible medical steps?

Transgender men (people who transition from female to male) are largely ignored in this essay, which is probably beneficial for them, although there is an incoherent paragraph that refers to them in the context of the public debate over bathroom use.

"I wish right now that the doctors who are pausing puberty would instead pause for a moment and take a look at the chaos resulting from the mess they’ve created. It’s harming women. The ones that are real women. Trans men have yet to harm men. Testosterone injections have been around for decades and there’s still no trans guy in the NFL. All it’s good for is soldiers in the bathroom war. 'See, I have facial hair, that makes me a man! Women you should be scared.' Women aren’t scared of trans men, I’ve asked them. They’re scared of penises or people that used to have penises. That’s why we don’t have a peace agreement for the bathroom war yet with the conservatives."

The meaning is hard to ascertain, but it was probably intended to be construed more like this: Some cisgender women assert fear or disgust or hypothetical transgender women and say they are reluctant to share the bathroom with them because they assume that transgender women are essentially "guys in dresses" — lecherous, creepy, possibly dangerous, and easy to spot, causing discomfort in others as soon as their faces are visible. Someone might challenge this by asking the cisgender woman: If she indeed believes that transgender women are really men, then logically doesn't she also believe that transgender men are really women? So does she feel comfortable if a transgender man — a person who presents as a man, wearing masculine clothes, who might have a beard, flat chest, deep voice — walks into a women's public bathroom? Well, Shupe has helpfully asked "them" (at least one cisgender woman) whether they believe they are afraid of "trans men," and they said no, so really it's transgender women (not transgender men) who are the primary cause of conflict here. Great. Shupe's interview question is irrelevant. If a furry-faced person dressed as a man walks into a women's bathroom, he isn't immediately identifiable as a "trans man." He is identifiable as someone who doesn't belong in a women's bathroom. It doesn't matter if some cisgender women believe they're unintimidated by their imaginary conception of a transgender man. What matters is that some people who use women's bathrooms (whether cisgender or transgender) would be alarmed by a real transgender man, a stranger, entering it unannounced. The pragmatic conclusion at which transgender men generally arrive is that they should use men's bathrooms. Everyone involved is happier.

The scope of the essay is too wide-ranging. Sometimes it seems to be about children who are offered medical transition, but a lot of it is about adults who transition and don't adjust well, have botched surgeries, or other miscellaneous regrets and disappointments. It would be one thing if Shupe admitted that some adults really are better off transitioning and that there is simply some reason to be cautious with kids. But Shupe's argument isn't limited to kids. The essay says that no one (regardless of age) should transition because binary transgender (male-to-female or female-to-male) is not a valid identity, it increases internal distress, it doesn't dismantle patriarchy, and it injures women. To the contrary, it is a valid identity (given that many people successfully live it; how else, from a liberal humanist perspective, would we validate it?); gender transition greatly reduces the internal distress of many people; our personal gender identities as "woman," "man," or "other" do not need to dismantle patriarchy (everyone is responsible for being an ethical person and taking actions to address injustice, but our identities do not have to dismantle patriarchy while we sleep because that does not make sense); and it isn't at all obvious how the existence of transgender people harms cisgender women (Shupe asserts this multiple times without providing a clue what kind of harm they are referring to).

People with non-binary gender identities deserve a space in society. This is true whether they were born intersex, male, or female, and whether they always identified as non-binary or whether they arrived at it through a process of self-examination or gender transition or adaptation from a binary place to a non-binary place. I am glad that Jamie Shupe has helped clear the way to make legal recognition possible for people who don't feel like either a boy or a girl. For those who do feel like a boy or a girl (although Shupe says it is impossible), I hope that they, too, can feel free to assert that identity, and that they have access to hormones and surgery if that is part of their gender affirmation process. I hope that we can have inclusive politics and move away from terms like "TERF" and "SWERF" whose second letter stands for "exclusion."

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