"Without gender differentiation... There would be no need to reconstruct genitalia to match identity - interests and life-styles [would] not [be] gendered."
– Judith Lorber

The above quotation by sociologist Judith Lorber is an example of the so-called gender-progressive challenge to transsexuality (understood as a process of surgical changes to the body that would transform one’s sex or gender identity). The standard argument goes something like this: Transsexuals are victims of society’s oppressive gender diktat. They mutilate their bodies because gender norms require having ‘the right’ genitalia in order to be a ‘real’ man or a ‘real’ woman. Wearing dresses and high-heels is contingent on having a vagina and breasts; facial hair and tuxedos are only for those with penises and a flat chest. And as good gender-progressives, we all know that these norms are a sham, and that many people with vaginas do ‘masculine’ things and many people with penises do ‘feminine’ things. We are aware of the terror and discrimination faced by these gender non-conformists, and thus, we are tempted to explain away transsexuality as a relic of gender oppression: transsexuals are forced to change their bodies because that is the only way they can construct a socially acceptable gender. They would be subject to shame, prejudice and violence if they did not change their bodies to conform fully to the gender prerogatives they want to enact. Thus, in a world without a tyrannical, binary gender ideology, transsexuality would cease to exist.

This line of reasoning, however, rests on several incorrect assumptions. First of all, it takes for granted that anybody who decides to change genitalia must be enacting a male-to-female or female-to-male transition. Is it not possible for agender, queer or genderqueer people to want to change their bodies – not in order to conform to a pre-existing sex/gender blueprint or for medical reasons – but simply because they ‘want to,’ because they think they would ‘look better,’ or be closer to ‘being themselves’? What if someone decides to remove breasts, but keep a vagina? Or add breasts, but keep a penis? Clearly such a person would still be a ‘transsexual’ (defined as one who undergoes surgical changes one’s sex organs), but definitely not the kind of transsexual imagined by the ‘critique-of-transsexuality’ discourse, described above. By ignoring the fact that transsexuals do not necessarily have to be MTFs or FTMs, this discourse makes invisible the very queer existences that it claims to stand for. Clearly, transsexuality does not only occur in a ‘traditional’ gender context, and thus, it would not ‘cease to exist’ in a queer or gender-progressive world.

Furthermore, it is also imperative to question the uneasiness with which the ‘progressive’ critique of transsexuality views ‘typical’ sex/gender changes. It assumes a kind of pathology (albeit socially imposed) for people who obtain vaginas and breasts in order to be women and people who acquire a penis and remove breasts in order to be men. The pressure of gender norms is undeniable, and it is clear that some people would not change their genitalia if it were not for social pressure. However, these are not grounds for dismissing the experiences of trans people as holdovers of an oppressive binary-gender model. ‘Queer utopia’ is not even close to being achieved. Worldwide, most people claim to belong to a binary gender system and cannot yet be expected to see beyond that. Indeed, it is questionable whether we can ever truly escape the binary gender system, and thus, trans people’s attempts to fit into it should be respected. Genderqueer communities do exist (as described above), however, they are small and isolated, not within reach of most people, or anywhere close to having a presence in mainstream social discourse. Queer utopia is far away, and thus, transsexuals should not be chastised for ‘failing’ to rely on its ‘eventual arrival.’ As Judith Butler states, “…trouble is inevitable, and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it.” This quotation sums up the predicament for many transgender people today, and having a ‘traditional’ sex change is a common solution.

In addition, the ‘progressive’ critique of transsexuality treats changing one’s genitalia as an ultimate act of social conformity. As most trans people will tell you, however, it is anything but that! Not having the genitalia one was born with (the so-called ‘natural’ ones) is viewed with painful amounts of stigma and violence. Transsexuality is an attempt to be oneself against immense social odds. It is true that this image of ‘selfhood’ is constructed by social gender expectations. Nevertheless, this does not make it any less respectable and any less remarkable of a triumph.

To sum up, the so-called gender-progressive critique of transsexuality misses the point on two fronts. First, it assumes that transsexuality can happen only in a binary-gender context – which is dispelled by the fact that genderqueer people can and do change their ‘sexual’ organs. Second, by figuring ‘traditional’ transsexuals as bearers of the effects of gender oppression, the queer critique of transsexuality denigrates their experiences. Yes, changing one’s genitals ‘appropriately’ may often be an attempt to ‘fit in’ to gender norms, but, in a deeply trans-phobic world, this is often a feat of immense bravery and social non-conformity. Binary gender is not going to go away anytime soon, and the attempts of transsexuals to ‘fit in’ to it against the odds should not be scorned.

***For More Information***
Judith Lorber is a well-known sociologist of gender. She teaches at Brooklyn College (City University of New York). Although she is not an out-and-out advocate of the ‘progressive critique of transsexuality’ discourse, her work covers a broad range of debates on gender and is certainly worth a look. Paradoxes of Gender and The Social Construction of Gender are especially worthwhile. You can find her essay, “Night to His Day: The Social Construction of Gender” here.

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