It is I, your professional transsexual, here to wish you a Happy National Goat Cheese Month. First up on our appetizer platter of links, historian Hugh Ryan (When Brooklyn Was Queer) asks “Who’s Afraid of Social Contagion?” in this Boston Review essay about our ever-evolving concepts of sexuality and gender.
“Are there actually more queer people now, or just more out queer people? Or are those the wrong questions to ask?” Ryan notes that while diversity of attraction and gender performance has always existed, the classifications themselves have changed several times over the past 200 years, shifting from a behavior-based to an identity-based paradigm, and conceptualizing more specific flavors of queerness as people’s social circles became more diverse through urbanization and the Internet.
For instance, Ryan says, Victorian society was extremely sex-segregated. Homosociality, even homoromanticism, was normal so long as you otherwise performed your “proper” gender identity. Most deep relationships were between people of the same sex, whether or not they discreetly included erotic intimacy as well. Deviant queerness in the 19th century resided in gender performance (effeminate men, butch women, or what we’d now call genderqueer presentation). This changed during the early 20th century:
City life enabled a radical new form of heterosociality—social interaction between people of different genders. Millions of people were able to leave the communities they came from and explore their desires and ideas in busy, anonymous, transient cities full of other people, some like them and some incredibly different. People who were normally gendered but attracted to people of the same sex—a group that had gone unnamed before—found each other in greater and greater numbers and began to recognize themselves as communities with shared identities. Soon, doctors, politicians, lawyers, and others began to notice them as well, and the category of the “invert” was broken down into people who were normally gendered but desired people of the same sex (homosexuals); people who desired to have bodies that were differently sexed (transsexuals); and people who already had bodies that were differently sexed (intersex people).
The seeds were sown for the current generation of “Fellas, is it gay to…” memes. Once the idea of homosexual identity was out there, same-sex affection of any kind became suspect:
As a result, in order to prove they were not homosexuals, newly defined straight people had to start acting differently: avoiding places were inverts went, avoiding too much time with people of the same sex, avoiding physical affection, and so on. This is one of the origin points of modern homophobia…
Ryan theorizes that the Internet has created a second great reorganization of our ideas of queerness. Like the mass migration to cities, it brings previously isolated members of sexual minorities into conversation with one another for the first time.
The gulf between chromosomal sex, physical sex at birth, physical sex in adulthood, gender identity, and gender presentation has never been wider, and this gulf causes problems for a system of sexuality and gender identity that rests on binary sex and binary sexual object choice—the paradigm of LGBT identity that dominated the twentieth century…
Twentieth-century notions of LGBT identity cannot answer these questions adequately, because they were not developed to understand the experiences of queer people; they were developed to segment straight cis people off from the rest of us.
After decades of change on a smaller scale, we are experiencing an epistemic change, a change in the base meaning of sex, sexuality, and gender. This is why it’s bringing together people who would otherwise seem to have no common alliance. But when you think about trans-negative “feminists” and conservative Christian fascists, what do they have in common? They both see the world through a reductive framework built on binary sex, and they both tend to spend most of their lives following rules determined by genitalia: men with penises here, women with vaginas there. Of course they are clinging to each other. Their ideas of “good” and “bad” are different, but their assumptions about what is “natural” and “real” are the same.
Legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon’s radical feminist credentials are indisputable. That’s why I was so thrilled to see her distance herself from the anti-transgender movement that has appropriated the radical feminist label. In this thorough exposition in Signs Journal, MacKinnon explains how reactionary their position is. The article, “Exploring Transgender Law and Politics,” transcribes a symposium with MacKinnon and Finn Mackay, Mischa Shuman, Sandra Fredman, and Ruth Chang at Oxford University in November 2022. Acknowledging that she’s still learning about trans issues, particularly regarding trans men, MacKinnon shows great comprehension and empathy:
Much of the current debate has centered on (endlessly obsessed over, actually) whether trans women are women. Honestly, seeing “women” as a turf to be defended, as opposed to a set of imperatives and limitations to be criticized, challenged, changed, or transcended, has been pretty startling. One might think that trans women—assigned male at birth, leaving masculinity behind, drawn to and embracing womanhood for themselves—would be welcomed. Yet a group of philosophers purporting feminism slide sloppily from “female sex” through “feminine gender” straight to “women” as if no move has been made, eventually reverting to the dictionary: a woman is an “adult human female.” Defining women by biology—adult is biological age, human is biological species, female is biological sex—used to be criticized as biological essentialism. Those winging to the Right are thrilled by this putatively feminist reduction of women to female body parts, preferably chromosomes and reproductive apparatus, qualities chosen so that whatever is considered definitive of sex is not only physical but cannot be physically changed into.
Feminism, by contrast, is a political movement. If some imagine a movement for female body parts, the rest of us are part of some other movement, one to end the subordination of women in all our diversity. In other words, what women “are” does not necessarily define the woman question: our inequality, our resulting oppression. Those of us who do not take our politics from the dictionary want to know: Why are women unequal to men? What keeps women second-class citizens? How are women distinctively subordinated? The important question for a political movement for the liberation of women is thus not what a woman is, I think, but what accounts for the oppression of women: who is oppressed as a woman, in the way women are distinctively oppressed?
Women are not, in fact, subordinated or oppressed by our bodies. We do not need to be liberated from our chromosomes or our ovaries. It is core male-dominant ideology that attributes the source of women’s inequality to our nature, our biological sex, which for male dominance makes it inevitable, immutable, unchangeable, on us. As if our bodies, rather than male dominant social systems, do it to us…
Inferiority, not difference, is the issue of hierarchy, including gender hierarchy.
The whole piece is worth reading. MacKinnon handily cuts down other myths that sexism and transphobia share, from “deceptive” trans women to the bathroom panic. “I really don’t understand why there is such a feeling of vulnerability around women in bathrooms, which usually have stall doors that lock, compared with homes, where no such protections exist and sexually assaulted women are victimized in high numbers by untransitioned men in their own families.” On the so-called advantages of trans women in sports: “Any advantage that height and weight disparities confer, for instance, exist within sexes as well as across them…Michael Phelps is built like a fish, but no one is looking to take away his swimming medals.” Instead, let’s re-evaluate which sports need to be sex-segregated, at all.
Literary scholar and trans activist Grace Lavery strikes back against TERF nonsense in the L.A. Review of Books. “Gender Criticism Versus Gender Abolition: On Three Recent Books About Gender” reviews new titles by Helen Joyce, Julie Bindel, and Kathleen Stock, a trifecta of so-called gender-critical feminists who dominate the debate in the U.K. Like the MacKinnon article cited above, Lavery points out how reactionary it is for feminism to defend the biological binary. Lacking merit in their ideas, these writers have positioned themselves as free speech defenders in order to win mainstream allies.
The success of gender-critical thought has been so remarkable, and the capture of the British public sphere so comprehensive, that even to point, childishly, and inquire whether the beautiful finery in which this new philosophy is arrayed really, um, exists is to invite the charge of having done a cancel culture. Promoting these ideas on the grounds of free speech, rather than on their merits, has proven a stroke of tactical genius. Think of all the iconoclastic jouissance one could access if the simplistic philosophical nostra of yesterday—Cartesian dualism, say; or the Platonist theory of forms—had not been refined, but had actually been censored! Stupidity would become wisdom; ignorance, strength. Freedom would be the freedom to submit “2+2=4” as one’s doctoral thesis in pure mathematics, and to anticipate warm praise for one’s principled refusal to challenge the assumptions of the proverbial man on the Clapham omnibus.
Lavery would have us look back to genuine radicals like Simone de Beauvoir or the Victorian advocates for women’s rights, who believed that womanhood was a mutable social category before it was a biological fact. “Demands for women’s suffrage were rooted in the notion that ‘women’ were not a naturally occurring type, distinguishable from men on natural grounds, but simply a group of persons that had been denied legal parity.” Metaphysical debates over the essence of womanhood are a distraction from fighting sex-based inequality.
A holiday we can all agree on.