Notes on Freedom

Libertarian, humanist social theory, by Josie Appleton

Category: Body modification

On the narcissism of trans activism

Is it ‘transphobic’ for lesbians to refuse to sleep with trans women? Should radical feminists be forced to see trans women as ‘real women’?

The growing conflict between trans activists and lesbians/radical feminists shines a light on today’s strange new breed of identity politics.

In a YouTube war, NeonFiona, a bisexual woman with a trans girlfriend, said that lesbians were downright bigoted for refusing to date trans women. Lesbian YouTubers and writers such as Arielle Scarcella and Taylor Fogarty responded with videos arguing that ‘Nobody should be coerced into having sex with anybody. If someone does not want to fuck you, it does not invalidate your identity.’

Meanwhile, radical feminists have been labelled TERFS (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists) for not seeing trans women as real women, a conflict that occasionally spills over into real violence. At a recent feminist Hyde Park rally, a 60-year old feminist was punched and grabbed around the neck by an apparently male-bodied trans woman. The ‘punch a terf’ meme is a theme on Twitter, where TERFS are compared to Nazis: ’deck a terf’, ‘punch terfs. transpobes suck’, ‘have you punched a nazi or a terf today?’.

Trans people have been part of the gay movement for decades: this is not about transgenderism per se. Nor is it about most trans people, who don’t want to punch anyone. Nor is it about the misunderstandings that can occur when straight people change sex: these situations are not unprecedented. At my college LGB Society 20 years ago there was a woman who identified as a gay man. Everyone was welcoming of him but the gay men were not interested; they wanted men, biological men. The situation was a bit awkward but nobody made a big deal about it: it just was what it was. Sometimes in life people miss each other.

Now this same situation has become a political line, a matter of political principle, the source of demands and recriminations. Gay women’s rejection of trans women is treated as an invalidation of trans identity, based on prejudiced ‘cultural conditioning’ and irrational fear.

Today’s trans activism involves a kind of narcissism, a failure to distinguish between your own and other people’s point of view. Self-ascription is treated as an absolute right: you can call yourself whatever you want to, and people have to mirror and affirm it. If you say you are a woman then it is harmful for other people to not treat you absolutely like a woman in every respect. ‘It’s harmful to trans folks to associate lesbian with “vagina only”’, tweeted one activist. ‘You’re not an LGBT advocate if you think trans women who don’t have surgery or take hormones are not women.’ In the demand for recognition, there is a denial of the independence of the other person’s point of view.

But the truth is that the world is independent of us: it has its own eyes, its own logic. We may wish to be seen as a woman or man, just as we may wish to be seen as funny or attractive, but this cannot be demanded as a right. In reality, we are very rarely seen as we wish to be seen, and indeed this is not a bad thing. It is a reality check. It is just life. We can work to earn other people’s opinions but we can’t demand them.

Today’s identity politics demands that the world be a perfect mirror, that it reflect your self-ascription, that it never present a denial, discomfort or refusal. The argument that lesbians should have sex with trans women even if they don’t want to (that they should want to want to) shows how this demand for affirmation represents a violation of the bodies and wills of others.

There is a questioning of lesbians’ ‘preferences’ for the female body. NeonFiona’s video put ‘preferences’ in quote marks, which she made with fingers over her head. ‘”Preferences” are super transphobic’, read one tweet. The message of the video is: question your preferences, ask why you prefer the things you do, because it could just be pure bigotry. An article on Slate discussed lesbians’ ‘knee-jerk resistance’ and ‘feelings of fear or disgust at the idea of a partner who they perceive as “really” a man – feelings that are rooted in transphobic cultural conditioning’. It said that lesbians were even worse than cis-men for a ‘freak-out’ or ‘yuck’ reaction when they discover that the woman they are dating has male anatomy.

Here, people’s feelings and desires are placed in quote-marks, as prejudiced, conditioned, in need of re-education. It becomes legitimate to ask why you prefer the people you prefer. Why do you never date trans people, or black people, or disabled people? As if your love list should correspond to a diversity chart in order to be entirely even handed. The intuitive, personal issue of sexual attraction becomes something for others to comment upon and judge. As Arielle Scarcella put it, activists can be ‘aggressive in telling lesbians how to define their sexuality and how to feel in their attractions’.

Ultimately, the narcissism of trans activism comes from the fragile nature of the contemporary self – its lack of independence from the world. The person demanding recognition as a perfect mirror has no place apart from the world. This aborts the efforts in Western philosophy over the past 2000 years, which has sought the independence of the self from the world. In his Meditations, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius told himself not to be affected by other people’s stinky breath or the stupid things they say about you. The Stoic’s aim is remaining rooted in your person, master of your ship, regardless of what others say or do around you.

Self-identity now is reduced to the single dimension of a social mask: how you are seen, what you are called. This is why non-recognition can spark such upset and rage. ‘When terfs attack, we fight back’, tweeted one trans activist: feminists’ refusal to see trans women as women is experienced as a kind of attack, which calls for violence in return.

But behind the aggression and accusation lies the fragility of contemporary identity, which has no point upon which to stand.

I will be discussing ‘Diversity – Does it Matter?’ at the Battle of Ideas in London on 28 October.

Transsexualism and the breakdown of personality

In the 1980s and 90s, some people started to modify their bodies in ways that were unprecedented in modern times. They felt there was something about their bodies that was ‘not right’. Their nose was too long, or short, or too wide; their bum was too big or too small, their breasts overly ample or flat. Parts of the body that might look fine to anyone else, to them were the source of discomfort. They felt physically uncomfortable, not at home in their own bodies. They sought to nip and to tuck, to change their bodies in order to change this feeling of not-rightness.

Tattoos and piercings were part of this too. One young woman said that she did her piercings ‘at times when I felt like I needed to ground myself. Sometimes I feel like I’m not in my body – then its time (to do a piercing).’ The act of piercing – of choosing the spot and the ring, caring for the wound, seeing the new look that had been chosen, made – was a way of grounding the self in the body. One occupied one’s body by piercing it, drawing on it, cutting it.

The growth of transexualism in the past 10 years is a development of this phenomenon. Only now, the matter is more serious. Transsexualism is not a question of this or that body feature, of the nose or bum or breasts; it is not a question of degree, of position on a scale of big or small. Nor is it a question of cosmetics, of taste or adornment. Rather, transsexualism is a question of the fundamental polarity of the body: the fundamental polarity of male or female.

The genitalia are not like other body parts: they do not vary along a gradation, but instead exist as a polarity, of A or B. Therefore, the transexual does not just feel wrong in part, in degree, but in essential definition, in essence. The transexual experiences the not-rightness in their body as a question of core; they feel that, at core, their body is the wrong one. They should be in a body that is not just different to their own but the opposite: they feel that they should take a physical form which is the opposite of the one they have.

In this, we see a breakdown of the unity between the person and their body, a unity that is personality. To be a person means to occupy the particular physical frame in which you are present in the world. It is yours. You are born stocky or skinny, tall or short. To always want to be tall when you are small, or vice versa, means that you are not appropriating your physical reality: you are not occupying it, making it yours.

Hegel describes personality as the unity of ‘the sublime and the trivial’. A person is on the one hand completely free, they can freely determine themselves through their thoughts and actions, but at the same time they are something ‘wholy determinate’: ‘I am of a certain age, a certain stature…and so on through whatever other details you like.’ (1) The ‘sublimity’ of personality means that it sustains this contradiction; the free aspect of the self possesses the body, it animates a particular given, natural form with purpose and spirit.

Now, with the concept of cis-men and women, the relationship between an individual and their body becomes entirely contingent. To identify with your physical existence is considered a specific personal choice or preference. You might choose to affirm the body in which you exist, just as you equally might not.

That there is a specific cis category suggests that it is entirely possible, normal even, to not identify with your physical existence. The personality and the body become potentially unrelated to one another; they go their separate ways. A woman can feel that she is actually a man, a man a woman, just as a white person can feel that they are actually black or a black person white.

At base, transsexualism expresses an inner tension, a tension between one’s sense of who one ‘really’ is, and one’s physical reality. One transexual said: ‘My voice and my body betray me’; ‘I want to look like what I am’ (2). Another said, ‘I must transform the body I have so it fits as closely as possibly my image of myself.’ (3) Therefore, there is a separation between ‘me’, and ‘my voice and body’; between the true self and the form in which one exists.

This is a contemporary manifestation of a much older tension, perhaps the oldest tension in the book: between existence and essence. That is, between a given reality, and one’s sense of what truly could or should be. The tension between existence and essence has been at the heart of social phenomena for thousands of years, whether that is religion, or politics, each in their various ways feeling a ‘not-rightness’ of reality and a seeking of a true or ideal state. Both religious soul searching and social revolution sought to bring existence in line with essence: to unite reality with an ideal or truth.

What is significant now is that this existence-essence tension is no longer playing out in social forms, or even between the individual and society. This is no longer a case of people spurning ‘society’ and going off on their own, to be in their own heads, away from the corruption of the world. Instead, the tension and feeling of ‘not rightness’ now plays out at the level of the individual – between the two composite elements of personality, the self and the body. Instead of not feeling right in their their country, or vocation or social position, the transexual does not feel right in their own body.

Therefore, a tension that had existed in social forms now appears in a guise that is both individualised and naturalised. The ‘true’ self takes a form that is entirely physical. The person you really are is not a matter of spirit or vocation – it is not a matter of your actions or choices in the world. Instead, it is the desire for an alternative physical form. Therefore, the true self (the person I ‘imagine myself to be’) has the content of a body, another body, the opposite body to the one you have.

Therefore, the true self appears as an opposing natural form. The existence-essence tension is playing out between two different kinds of natural form: between the wrong body, and the right body.

The sense of wrongness is reduced to a matter of genitalia, of having a penis when there should be a vagina, or a vagina where there should be a penis. Becoming who you really are is a question of physical removal and reconstruction, of folding stomach flesh into a penis shape, or constructing a hole between the legs.

The tension between existence and essence is reduced to the body – and the resolution of that contradiction takes the highly limited and inadequate form of a surgical procedure.

Josie Appleton is talking about ‘Self, society and alienation’ at The Academy on 15 and 16 July.

(1) GWF Hegel, Philosophy of Right, section on ‘Abstract Right’

(2) Transgender Studies Reader, Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, 2006

(3) Making the Body Beautiful, Sander L Gilman, 1999

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