Archive: Julie Bindel and the Trans vs. Feminism Tug-of War

Feminism and transsexuality have long pushed each others’ buttons. Feminism often seeks to break gender roles and stereotypes, break gender barriers, and yet transsexuality says that “there’s something inborn in me that I can’t escape or deny,” at which point transsexuals seem to embrace those same roles, barriers and stereotypes. Unlike natal women, transwomen have usually not had the lifetime of learning and confinement in those roles and stereotypes to reach the point of loathing them. And unlike transsexuals, natal women have sometimes experienced too much of the negative aspects of said roles and stereotypes to want to consider any middle ground on the matter.

Male-to-female transsexuals are not the only ones to push feminist buttons, either — for many transmen, the moment one chooses to cross the line from “butch” to “male,” they may be seen as joining or supporting the patriarchy, selling out women, etc. And most critically regarding transsexuality overall, the contention that there is something biological, inescapable and innate about our gender identity as suggested by transsexuals flies in the face of (much of) feminism’s belief in gender as a purely socialized deception fed to people by society (and incidentally, this conflict applies whether one is a transgender advocate or an HBS seperatist).

I am generalizing. There are many schools of feminist thought, and many divergences in trans philosophy as well. I’m not trying to paint all feminism as an “enemy” when I know the two concepts can be resolved and have comfortably done so for my own personal perspective, as have many others. But there are times — such as the current debate featuring the writings of Julie Bindel and an associated journalism nomination — when certain branches choose to set themselves up in an adversarial position.

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// And this one emerging (reviving) perspective that pits trans versus feminism derives from this basis, and has put the right to social-determinist feminist identity in direct opposition to the right to trans identity, shaking one’s foundation and bringing into question the other’s right to be and right to access surgery.

“Call me old-fashioned, but I thought the one battle we feminists won fair and square was to convince at least those left of centre that gender roles are made up. They are not real. We play at them. We develop traditional masculine or feminine traits by being indoctrinated, not because we are biologically programmed to behave in those ways.” — Julie Bindel, “Gender Benders, Beware!”

Julie Bindel has led that recent charge to some extent, starting in 2004 with an article that she has since expressed some remorse for the scathing tone, but has not her overall perspective. The article, “Gender Benders, Beware!” was a reply to the Kimberly Nixon vs. Rape Relief case in Vancouver, stating that “The Rape Relief sisters, who do not believe a surgically constructed vagina and hormonally grown breasts make you a woman, successfully challenged the ruling and, for now at least, the law says that to suffer discrimination as a woman you have to be, er, a woman.”

To simplify her position (or possibly oversimplify, though that is not the intent), Bindel has said that the primary success of feminism was to blur gender roles and distinctions, and that equality will only truly happen by continuing to do so to the point that gender loses meaning and “male” and “female” become indistinguishable designations (although she does defend some borders, such as washrooms, though not for the same reasons as other naysayers).

In the Bindel world, the male-to-female transsexual should be able to shed the shackles of “male,” the female-to-male transsexual should be able to shed the shackles of “female,” and that should be enough to make everyone happy. Gender Reassignment Surgery, she maintains, is “unnecessary mutilation” — at which point she drums up the same 6 or 8 people who publicly pronounce their regret for their surgery that the Fundamentalists use – the logical equivalent of using the one to say that the nine out of ten are wrong.

She made her case again before the BBC and The Royal Society of Medicine (UK) in Fall 2007, so this philosophy has not changed. Bindel has also on a few occasions portrayed the horrific misuse of GRS in Iran to “cure” homosexuality as corroboration that transsexuals are really just gay and that surgery represents a medical form of corrective therapy for people who simply can’t be happy with their gayness.

Salon Magazine summed up the conflict: “In other words, ye olde nature-nurture debate is rearing its head, pitting one marginalized “radical” group against another. But there is something about this explanation that doesn’t quite make sense. On the nurture side, there’s the belief that you shouldn’t mess with the body Goddess gave you because it’s just a shell, essentially empty of meaning. On the nature side, there’s the belief in undergoing surgery and using hormones for life to fix an essential mistake of nature. Does anyone else see a contradiction here? If the body is a meaningless shell, why not allow people to play with it and alter it? And if you believe nature “makes mistakes” or can be improved through medical technology and a nice face cream, is that really a rigid understanding of natural gender distinctions?”

For this, UK’s Stonewall has nominated Bindel for its “Journalist of the Year” award. Okay, let’s be fair, the nomination is not actually for her stance on trans issues: Julie Bindel has written extensively to oppose physical abuse, to fight gender disparity, and to provide a pro-lesbian voice in the mainstream media. She’s been considered a champion and I can respect that to some degree (when one disregards other conflicts) it is even deserved. But it’s bewildering that the organization refuses to reconsider honoring someone whose other writings have met Stonewall’s own definition of “transphobia.”

In Julie Bindel’s recent reply to the controversy, she addresses the original 2004 article, saying that “I was, and remain angry that Nixon decided to risk the future of such an important service for rape victims. I stand by my position on this case, but regret using sarcasm, jokes and innuendo which may well have resulted in inciting others to treat transsexual people with disdain or even hatred.” Which is to say, she’s sorry that she hurt people and made them feel insulted, but a transwoman is still not a real woman and could not possibly be capable of counseling real women who’ve suffered rape. Moreover, she adds that it is in fact transsexuals who are upset with her who are the real bigots: “The bullying insistence from some groups and individuals to have Stonewall withdraw my nomination is anti-lesbian in the extreme.”

In her reply, she wonders how her writing — outside the snide 2004 remarks apologized for — can be construed as transphobic. And yet, she should know that transphobia, like homophobia, involves far more than hate speech and/or an incitement to hate. As mentioned, Stonewall’s own booklet “Transgender” provides an itemized definition:

  • the belief that trans women are not “real women” because they have been raised and socialised as men
  • the belief that trans men are not “real men” because they do not have, or were not born with a penis
  • the belief that transsexual people are actually gay people in denial
  • the assumption that transgender people are “sick” or that they are psychologically unstable
  • when a transgender person is excluded from services, activities, discussions or decisions because it is felt that that person doesn’t “fit in”
  • the refusal to recognise or acknowledge the true gender of a trans person and the continual insistence to refer to them by their former name

Even minus the 2004 remarks, there is still a refusal to accept transfolk as “real” (items 1 and 2, some of #6); her remarks on the Iranian travesty that the trans community here would never support anyway betrays some adherence to #3; her insistence that transgender people have a purely psychological issue that should be cured with something resembling reparative therapy rather than surgery (#4); and a spotty insistence on exclusion from women’s spaces (#5). It would seem to me that the only thing she isn’t in violation of by the above definition is the insistence on using former names.

And yet, transphobic or not, it still doesn’t touch on the heart of the debate: pure biology or pure sociology — as if it can’t be some of both. Bindel refuses to accept any possibility of a biological origin of transsexuality, just as she refuses to accept the possibility of a biological origin of homosexuality/lesbianism:

All these claims serve the notion that there is something wrong with those of us who shun heterosexuality. Many lesbians and gays want to believe we were “born that way” to provoke sympathy and understanding.”

And to be fair, the recent study of a genetic connection to transsexuality still does not provide solid proof in answer. What it does is replicate findings in previous studies but with a larger case sampling, to say essentially that there is a noticeably higher incidence of this element in transsexuals than in typical population, which would seem to indicate that there is some biological connection. This is similar to what the studies in “brain sex” currently say. As they accumulate, they become more convincing, but as I’ve said, the science is not there yet. As much as we’d like to call it conclusive proof, it isn’t. Yet.

Still, it should at least give pause to stop and consider the possibility. As a transwoman, I can certainly recognize that there are some serious implications that socialization have on us, and having been socialized differently, I find myself quicker than some, perhaps, to question the parts of the gender construct that is thrown at me in a 24/7 living experience as female. There is, yes, far more than a bucketful of bull$#!t that is fed to both males and females to try to dictate how we live our lives.

Yet, I can’t deny the puzzling, inescapable and inexplicable “me” that always understood that I was female, that agonized and suffocated trying to put on a false front to live up to the gender construct that was chained to male genitalia, that had a sense of understanding far before transition of the female mind and the female body, that had no understanding at all of the male minds around me and an overwhelming feeling of unnaturalness at having male genitalia, that experienced overwhelming amazement at how the peace and levelness brought on by the introduction of hormones was so much what I’d craved in my life and hadn’t fully expected to find (and conversely, many FTMs have reported the same feeling about becoming “energized” by hormones in their lives)…. Nothing in life ever fit correctly or made sense before transition, and I’m talking about life far beyond role, stereotype and assumption, which I’ve become pretty good at questioning.

Ms. Bindel, of course, has not experienced any such thing, which may make it hard to understand, but I know for myself anyway that I was not socialized as a girl… and yet I am. It’s the only way in 40 years that the puzzle of my brain ever fit together, and that was not for lack of trying everything else, including aversion, repression and “corrective” principles.

And does that include surgery? I don’t think it does for everybody, but I had to come to a clear realization that it does for myself. Again, this was not for lack of trying the alternative. The body parts remain foreign, the sexuality remains awkward and non-functional — despite a clear attempt to live without GRS and search for personal meaning in the uncharted in-between.

We’re at an impasse, at a point where it is necessary to question. For transsexuals, it means that we need to question our new roles and discover how much is real to us and how much was fed by society, and this is a process that most do when defining our new lives. For other transgender people, they may have never been forced to confront real versus conditioned, but it provides the occasion to do so now. But most dramatically, it forces the branch of feminism that believes that gender was nurture-dictated to open itself to the possibility that it is not wholly so.

The cumulative weight of nature evidence is growing, and although it by no means negates understandings of the effects of nurture, exceptions to the solely-nurture concept date as far back as many of the foundations of gender-construct gender theory. Dr. John Money, the man who gave us some of the foundational concepts from which our concept of social-determinism grew, including “gender identity” and “gender role,” “lovemaps,” “bodymind” and “concepts of determinism,” was proven tragically incorrect when it came to his star research subject, John/Joan, now known to be David Reimer — a tragedy that also continues to be replicated in places where the practice of gender assignation of intersex infants continues.

Something about the socialization theory of gender isn’t quite right, and transgender people aren’t yet sure why we contradict it, but the fact that we do and not entirely by choice (if at all, even) is sooner or later going to require a serious re-examination. There is resolution, we just haven’t definitively found it yet to define certainties, we’ve only clarified it enough to make sense of our own personal realities and suggest that as a solution to others.

In the end, the issue is not about Bindel exclusively, she has simply been the loudest voice of late. The issue is about a branch of feminism that feels so threatened by the presence of transsexuals that there is a refusal to believe that transwomen might also experience rape, might also endure wage disparity and devaluing assumptions, might also run against societal structures about what womanhood is supposed to mean, might also face that same patronizing pat-on-the-head “oh, that’s cute, you have a career — but when are you going to have children?” And that transwomen and transmen might actually be what they claim to be: spiritually and psychologically one gender (minus social conditioning), though biologically-driven to another — that perhaps gender lines will never be able to completely blur to indecipherability, due to a little something innate in each of us.

Personally, I believe that transsexuality does have the potential to teach something important about the socialization of females and males (having had to grow up with one and learn to cope with the other), and that the existence of an innate gender does not justify (nor mandate the imposition of) inequality.

Maybe that’s just me.

    • thinkpinkradio
    • August 19th, 2010

    wow. thank you SO much for writing this eloquent and well-researched article. I’ve only recently discovered Julie Bindel and her dangerous opinions about feminism vs. trans identity and it’s such a shock to my queer system. the most alarming thing is not her point of view (i’ve seen enough bigotry in my life to write a how-to) but that her voice is so far-reaching. when someone has a public platform and they use it to oppress others, it’s disturbing. when someone who is supposed to be part of our LGBT community uses her voice to oppress others from within, it’s a crime. we MUST have allies in our fight for acceptance, and for Bindel to champion the exclusion of trans people only serves to hurt everyone.

    i hope to write my own point of view soon, but i’m still processing. thanks again!

      • dentedbluemercedes
      • August 20th, 2010

      You’re welcome — I’m glad it helps. There’s a bit more info in The Prerequisites to Woman ( https://dentedbluemercedes.wordpress.com/2009/07/06/the-prerequisites-to-woman/ ) which might help, not specifically about Bindel, but with some discussion of overlapping attitudes and issues. (Incidentally, the pharmacy referenced in that article later accepted trans women, so some of the real-time info in that article has changed)

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