Thursday, June 22, 2006

Transamerica, or The Uterus-Only Treehouse

Last weekend, Jenn and I watched Transamerica, a movie about a pre-op transwoman, Bree, a week away from her surgery date who discovers she has a 17-year-old son, the result of a college affair she had back when she went by "Stanley." (oh, watch my pronouns get tricky!). She bails her son out of jail, posing as a Christian missionary, and they proceed to go on a roadtrip from New York to California. Along the way, there's a scene suspiciously like one from Geoff Ryman's Lust (which I've read three times), with a nearly identical "oh, gawd, don't do that!" audience reaction, and I wouldn't be surprised if the director had read the book....

Anyway, what I loved about this movie was its avoidance of a smarmy, feel-good, romantic ending, only it didn't ruthlessly slaughter its characters, either. Nobody dies, thank god. Nobody's beaten up and left mutilated on the side of the road (movies with gay, lesbian, trans, or crossdressing characters always seem to end or include at least one character getting killed and/or beaten up for being "other." This was a nice change). Even better, it was a movie that acknowledged the humanity of its characters: the good, the bad, and the ridiculous. You genuinely care about Bree, and you really, really want her to get her surgery. You watch her work her butt off to save the money. You watch her walk around at work, on the street, trying to be smaller, hunching down into herself, hoping to "pass." And it reminded me of the feeling I still have when I walk past certain men or groups of men, hoping I won't be noticed, won't be harrassed, thinking, "Please don't look at me. I'm completely normal and not worth noticing. Please, please, leave me alone."

Bree's parents are a little over the top, particulary the actress playing her mother, but Bree's emotional reactions were both funny and heartbreaking. She tries so hard at stealth, and when an 8-year-old child questions whether she's a man or a woman, she completely breaks down, and at that point in the movie, you understand exactly why. When she and her son end up in a hick bar in the middle of nowhere, you feel real fear that she'll be "found out." Because I've seen these kinds of movies. I know exactly what people do to those they think are "different." I've seen prejudice, and I've felt that kind of fear that because of how I was born, how I present myself, I'll be attacked for it.

Every year I've gone to Wiscon, I always end up going to the trans panel, or the panel most likely to talk about trans people and trans issues. The idea that somebody had a disjoint between the way they perceived themselves and the way their bodies were fascinated me. I kept thinking, "I hardly notice my sex at all, unless it's pointed out to me by people on the street, unless it results in catcalls, lost job opportunities, or sexual advances." And then I realized: that's the point.

I don't really notice my sex because I don't have any sort feeling of disconnect between the way I perceive myself and my biological sex. When I was very young, four or five, I didn't identify so much as female because I believed women were all fem and liked nail polish and makeup. I didn't like those things, so I figured I must be some sort of gender-neutral being. You can do that until puberty, but then you've generally gotta take a good hard look.

I did sometimes fantasize about being a guy. But that was mostly when I was 17 and had my first crush on a girl in my speech class, and I kept hoping to wake up one day and not only be a man, but be a stronger, thinner, smarter, suaver, more outgoing version of myself. If I was truly in the "wrong" body, that disconnect was happening because I had a stronger, fitter version of myself in my head, and that wasn't the body I presented.

For the record, I no longer feel that disconnect, and though I've often thought about what it would be like to be a guy during sex, I've never felt the need to alter my body in order to do that.

Jenn and I talked about a lot of these issues after watching Transamerica, and she said, "You know, I never really wanted to be a guy."

This puzzled me. "Never?" I said, thinking, don't *all* women fantasize about being men? I mean, *I* did. It's fun to think about switching things around sometimes, viewing things from the other side.

"Not really," she said. "I thought it would be cool to be androgenous, but it never occurred to me to be a man."

"But... even when you had all those crushes on girls?"

"I just never thought of it."


Imagine.... different people will have different ways of viewing themselves inside their own skins.

Imagine that. Everyone is different. I can't take the way that I feel about myself, my body, my sex, my gender, and assume everyone feels the same way.

How stupid would that be?

It's one reason why I'm always surprised at the intolerance shown to mtfs among some self-identifying "radical feminists." A debate ensued here.

Quoting from "Men in Ewes' Clothing: The Stealth Politics of the Transgender Movement":

Look at what happened at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival last year. Apparently, pre-op mtfs entered the festival and disrobed by the showers where women were also naked preparing to shower. If these wannabe "women" had any real understanding of what it is to be a woman in patriarchy they would have respected, not violated, women's space, and they would have understood what a horrific violation it would be for a woman to be confronted with a strange naked biological male, penis and all, when she herself is unclothed and vulnerable.

Why, it appears that Trans Stealth Politics are a lot like the Secret Gay Agenda! Only the trannies are doing it to disrupt Womyn's Music Festivals.

How stealthy is that???? Sneaky trannies!


Well, first of all, nobody's actually come forth to corroberate that "disrobing" story, but like all urban legends, it says a lot about the underlying fears of the people who perpetuate it.

It's the Fear of the Penis. I'm wondering how she would have been able to freak out about this if the transwomen in question had been post-op: or, indeed, if anyone would have known that they'd been born men. Because why would it matter? Oh, well, because obviously transwomen are all out to rape and murder women. *That's* why they spend years in therapy, scrape and save all their money for surgery, and reinvent themselves, risk losing friends and family, and undergo a long and painful surgery (sometimes several), and take hormones. Cause they couldn't figure out any better way to cruise for chicks and disrupt the feminist movement.

Yea. Sure.

One of the political problems that I see with the whole notion of transgender politics is the idea that by changing one's appearance, presentation, or body, one can change one's gender. As a radical feminist, I believe that gender does not reside for the most part in our bodies--it resides in our heads, where gender socialization occurs.

Actually, no. Gender *socialization* occurs when one is out and among other *people.* Hence, the *socialization* part of it.

There are all sorts of arguments about how women who grew up as boys aren't "real women" and therefore can't understand "women's oppression," because gender is a socially constructed thing, and they'll always "really be men."

Dude, if gender is socially constructed, and you present as a woman, then won't society treat you like a woman? So if there's oppression against women in our society, and society views you as a woman, won't you share in that oppression?

But mtfs have been raised male! They will simple "appear like women" but will interact in society just like those evil male patriarchs!


That's like saying that any woman who was raised "really masculine" won't understand what it's like to be oppressed, because she'll be more forthright in conversations, speak with a deeper voice, and will take less shit.

Sorry, people are still going to treat her like a woman, no matter how ball-busting she is going into a boardroom meeting.

We're all on the same team here, folks.

But what about ftms!? They're participating in the perpetuation of patriarchy because they present as men and have penises! Evil, evil penises!

Likewise the increasing popularity of lesbians becoming transmen forecloses their forming solidarity with other women against oppression, and instead they join with the oppressors.


I think some of the best people at understanding said patriarchy are those who've lived as both sexes. They've seen the way society treats you when you live as a woman and as a man, and how it's the same, and how it's different.

And assuming that because you have a penis that you can't "form solidarity" with other women is the stupidest thing I've ever heard, particularly in reference to an ftm, who's, you know, been in a woman's body.

To ignore that men and masculinity have been oppressors of women and to pretend that wanting not to just identify with the oppressors, but actually become like them is, if not anti-feminist, then at least oblivious to feminism. To identify as a man in a woman's body as an essential identity means never having to face or be accountable for taking on the privileges and sometimes oppressive behaviors of men. The ftm just "is" a man, so if he swaggers, doesn't do the dishes, and is silent and uncommunicative with partners, oh well, he just "is" that way.

I think the author's getting confused here about what being trans is (please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, too). She's confusing "gender" and "gender performance" with bodies, with biological sex. Not all ftms "swagger" or are "uncommunicative" with their partners. In fact, I know a lot of women-born-women (including myself) who perform that way, and don't feel any sort of sex-swapping is neccessary in order for us to act that way, just as many men who perform "fem" don't feel the need to have women's bodies. There's something else going on there, and I have a feeling this author is focusing so much on the performance of gender that she hasn't stopped to wonder if there really is a difference in the way *she* perceives her body and the way a transperson percieves their body.

Because neither she nor I feel uncomfortable in our bodies and don't often notice our sex doesn't mean everyone feels that way.

How superficial, individualistic, and simplistic it would be for me, as a white american raised by a white family, to come to feel that I was really a black person inside, to change my skin color and other features to begin passing as black, and to demand to enter people of color space! In that case we could clearly see how outrageous such a demand would be. Being black in the United States (and elsewhere) is so much more than a matter of adopting skin color. It is an insult and the mark of privilege to miss that point so entirely.

Sure. But if you could change your race; if you were perceived in society as being of another race, society is going to treat you as the race you present as. You won't have the experience of *growing up* under those conditions, but you'll definately be treated like a person of that race once you switch over.

The transgender movement, by dwelling so much on freedom of choice to identify as whatever gender you want, takes our eyes off the consequences of choices and the way our choices are structured by oppressive forces, in short, it does nothing to eliminate a system based on power and privilege. Such a system values competition over connection, control over cooperation, aggression over compassion, and individualism over interdependence. Freeing people from gender roles means they are free to hold whatever values they choose including the values of power: they can be controlling, disconnected from others, or aggressive if they want to.

So should we all be gender neutral? Is that the only way to "fight" oppression? Can I only do it from a born-woman body? So everybody who's born a man values control and aggression and doesn't want to cooperate?

I guess she's asking whether or not mtfs and ftms are *really* challenging gender roles, or merely perpetuating them.

Which is like asking if all men or all women are challenging gender roles, or merely perpetuating them.

Depends on the sort of person you are. Some people feel weird unless they act ultra butch or ultra fem. Some people feel weird if they aren't expressing both their butch and fem characteristics. Some people feel so totally neutral that they don't think of any of their actions in those terms at all. Not every transperson tries to "pass" and not every transwoman is ultra fem, and not every transman is ultra masculine.

Acting as if there is no problem with male violence and aggression, as if women are not living under the threat of it every day of their lives, as if the problem of patriarchy is merely one of exclusion and not of power and violence, as if male socialization is not intimately linked to power relations and deeply rooted even in those who wish to eschew it, is a smokescreen for conservative forces in the guise of radicalism to destroy the few vestiges of feminist space that we have.

Oh, sure, there's a problem with male violence and aggression. Transwomen and transmen and transvestites get that violence and aggression lashed out at them just as women - queer or not - and gay men do. Violence comes down on those who are perceived as weak or different; those who (usually) men believe they can hurt because there will be little consequence. That needs to change. And I think that fighting a culture that accepts that kind of violence is something that all the little GLBTs can get behind.

This is a real danger of the transgender movement. Somehow we have a movement whereby men's interests have found a clever way to siphon off lesbian and feminist energies into a liberal agenda of identity politics, individual freedom, and inclusion which make us forget altogether about challenging patriarchy. To the extent feminists partake in this, we have nursed a viper to our movement which is now out to destroy what precious little women's space we have managed to eke out.

Um, once again: ignoring the ftms? Because now that we've got the advances in surgery, there are about as many women as men going through surgery. So there's something going on here that's not all about "men trying to invade women's spaces" or "women trying to join patriarchy." And I don't think this author is doing any thinking beyond her politics.

If the festival operated under the idea of inclusion, why wouldn't we just invite in those guys who ride cars up and down the road outside the festival trying to get a glimpse of naked women?

Because that's the whole point of hormones, therapy, money-saving, surgery, the potential upset of one's relationships to friends and family:

It's all about harrassing women and getting pussy!!

If that was the goal of every mtf, why didn't they just keep their men's bodies? Think real hard.

Fuck inclusion! We'll have inclusion when we live in post-patriarchy.

After we've alienated all of our allies!!!

To the extent we nurture this boy-based glbt movement and take on its politics as our own, we seriously imperil our ability to fight patriarchy and challenge male violence.

Because men and transpeople can't be feminists. And only women-born-women have any interest in curtailing violence. And, obviously, the transmovement is boy-based: it's all about men - you're either trying not to be one or becoming one.

But, wait!

Couldn't you say it's all about women - you're either trying not to be one or becoming one.

But that would be too women-centric, and transexuals are all about the boys.

It's about the penises, again. Whether you got one, whether you don't.

For a radical lesbian feminist, there sure is a lot of talk and concern about the phallus.

The whole transgender project is really faux liberalism dressed up as a radical chic. While claiming the opposite, its actual effect is conservative in that it does nothing to challenge oppression and hierarchy. And it is a dangerous and insidious diversion of lesbian energies away from feminism at a time when we can least afford it.

Did you hear that, my fellow queerfolk? The trannies are out to get us. Better hide under the bed, or better yet, stone them.

Funny, I can think of a lot of people who'd love to stone all the queers, too.

But we radical feminists are liberal and inclusive, and all about love, nurturing, goodness, cooperation, tolerance, and acceptance.

Just like good Christian fundamentalists.

Go us.

8 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

Patrick said...

It's all about the penis.

Kameron Hurley said...

Well, I knew *you* would say that Patrick, you Monstrously Masculine Football-watching Beer-swilling Misogynist!!!

heh heh

Kameron Hurley said...

Also, you are NOT a feminist!!!!!

Cheryl said...


Posted by Cheryl

Andygrrl said...

see, folks like this are why I, a feminist and a lesbian, have stopped identifying as a "radcial" feminist lesbian. It's not that my politics have become more centrist, but I don't want to associate with this bullshit.

jeez louise people, read some judith butler and jack halberstam and join the 21st century please!

great post kameron.

Patrick said...

Hey! I don't drink beer!

Kam, for what it's worth, I think you hit it completely and totally on the head with those folks not being able to understand the fact that other people have a different concept of themselves. If the only thing they can think about an mtf is "That's someone who wants to screw up feminism!", that's sort of sad. It also shows that, for one reason or another, that person probably doesn't have a whole lot of life outside her feminism.

It's like the guy who thinks you're honking at him because you hate the Jesus fish on his bumper sticker, when in fact you're honking because he just swerved into your lane and braked suddenly. Other people's lives are not all about the things that we choose to make the centers of our own little universes.

Except, of course, for the penis. 

Posted by Patrick

Anonymous said...

I loved the movie, Transamerica, because it gives one version of what it is like to be the "middle" sex. It is different for everyone and no one can answer what it is like for everyone.
I had to go out of town to see this movie because it did not play in the area where I live. This is unfortunate but the reality of this place. I am also a feminist but I am also a senior citizen and society and culture really does not care all that much anymore what I do. There is an advantage to this as well.
I hope more people see this really wonderful movie and realize that the human experience is really very unique and different for each of us.  

Posted by Lori Alexander

Deborah said...

You are totally made of win. Just sayin'. *grin*