Pt. 9, Trans Dasein: Culture, Identity, and Role

Pt. 8, Discursive Ontology: Feminism, Identity, and Manhood
July 1, 2016
Pt. 10, Radical & Trans Feminism: bridging a discursive divide
August 21, 2016

Trans Feminist Cristan Williams responds to Radical Feminist John Stoltenberg‘s commentary on feminism, identity, and manhood, describing how “gender identity” is used within trans discourse. Williams discusses her experience of gender identity, noting the difference between identity and role. Williams asks Stoltenberg to share his perspective on how trans and radical feminists might be able to discuss role and identity in ways that do not construct the trans and intersex experience as being specious.

Keywords: Sex Gender Gender Identity Sex Identity

Trans Dasein: Culture, Identity, and Role

BY Cristan Williams

sub1bI think most trans feminists can clearly see how cultural sex/gender contextualizations are intrinsically tied the culturally normative identity concepts of “man/male” or “woman/female.” I think most trans feminists can clearly see how these contextualizations are oppressive; that to win the identity of a “real man” one must – to one degree or another – participate in oppressing that which is not “man/male,” ie, “woman.” It is the perpetual cultural grasping after the “real man” identity that in no insignificant way not only produces that which we take to be “woman/female,” but in fact, produces patriarchy.

As a trans activist, I try to ensure that my audience knows that when “gender identity” is used in trans discourse, it may be referencing any one of three categories:

A.) One’s subjective experience of one’s own sexed attributes;
B.) One’s sexed identification within the context of a social grouping; or,
C.) Both A and B

When I discuss these categories, I’m trying to describe the nuances between the experience of self as it relates to the body (A), the experience of self as it relates to social groupings (B), and their intertextual relationship (C). In other words, I am noting the subtle differences between the subjective experience of having a body, the binary categories we culturally force bodies into and the tension between these two experiences.

Here, I think it is important for me to draw a nuance between an identity and a role. In this conversation, I’ve sometimes used “contextualization” to discuss identity and role as one single concept. However, there exists a nuance in trans discourse between identity and role. For instance, should I speak in terms of identity, I am speaking in terms of form; should I speak in terms of role, I am speaking in terms of function. For Categories A, B and C, I am speaking of form or, in other words, that which relates to the subjective experience of being, not doing. While I can see that, in one sense, “manhood” is a gender identity, within the context of trans discourse, I would talk about manhood/womanhood more in terms of role as these labels are speaking to a specific function within our culture. Trans author Jan Morris wrote of the insidious interplay of identity and role in her 1974 book Conundrum:

The more I was treated as a woman, the more woman I became. I adapted willy-nilly. If I was assumed to be incompetent at reversing cars, or opening bottles, oddly incompetent I found myself becoming. If a case was thought too heavy for me, inexplicably I found it so myself. Thus as I now found myself far more into the company of women than of men, I began to find women’s conversation in general more congenial. Women treated me with a frankness which, while it was one of the happiest discoveries of my metamorphosis, did imply membership of a camp, a faction, or at least a school of thought; and so I found myself gravitating always towards the female, whether in sharing a railway compartment or supporting a political cause. Men treated me more and more as a junior, as the Chevalier D’Eon had been obliged to accept a guardian in his womanhood — my lawyer, in an unguarded moment one morning, even called me “my child;” and so, addressed every day of my life as an inferior, involuntarily, month by month I accepted this condition. I discovered that even now men prefer women to be less informed, less able, less talkative, and certainly less self-centered than they are themselves; so I generally obliged them.1

Morris describes her 1960-era experience of being placed into the sex class woman as “involuntary” even though she had a confounding awareness of what was happening to her. As people acted out their manhood upon Morris, she found herself to be “inexplicably” attenuated within her culture. The gender conditioning Morris faced was predicated upon a culture invested in constructing, enforcing, and perpetuating a social binary. Such an experience isn’t produced by some essential biologism or sexed attribute; it’s produced by culture.

While manhood speaks to a specific functionality, I can also see that, in another sense, one must try to identify with “manhood” in order to sufficiently embody it. It is for this reason that I’ve chosen to speak of identity and role together as one concept: gender and/or sex contextualization. A gender identity doesn’t exist within a vacuum; it resides within each one of numerous minds which collectively agree upon what a specific identity means: how it functions, what it produces, and what its spheres of influences are.

In my interview with Judith Butler, she said, “I see no problem with women having a penis, and men having a vagina. People can have whatever primary characteristics they have (whether given or acquired) and that does not necessarily imply what gender they will be, or want to be.” I agree. Within a culture, neither identity nor role can be prescribed by body attributes; a body attribute can itself assert neither role nor identity. It is therefore culture which seeks to prescribe sex/gender roles and identities. It’s important that each individual possess a dignity of a selfhood that isn’t prescribed by culture or by those who believe that body parts are acting agents which dictate identity or role.

For whatever (as of yet definitively proven) reason, some trans people experience crippling suffering situated around Category A. From my earliest memories – beginning at age 3 – I tried to hide my genitals. I had just turned 5 when I began praying to god to either fix my body or allow me to die in my sleep. My suicidal ideation was, from my earliest memories, situated around my subjective experience of my body. This experience persisted until I was able to have surgery. For me, addressing Category A was the single most liberating act of self-respect and compassion I had ever experienced.

Certainly, my one experience is not representative of all trans experience. Trans people transition, socially and physically, in whatever way and to whatever degree feels right for them. Having said that, I think it’s beneficial that trans people continue to distance themselves from prescriptivisms situated around being a “real man” or “real woman.” I think radical feminism rightly asks us to challenge sex/gender prescriptivism; that is, radical feminism rightly challenges us to investigate, critique, and reject sexism.

In Refusing to be a Man the only time you reference the trans experience is when you are noting that both Andrea Dworkin and Catharine Mackinnon ensured that their woman-centered legal work was trans inclusive. Can you clarify how we might begin to talk about gender/sex identity in a way that neither condemns trans and intersex people for their embodied experiences while, nonetheless being necessarily critical of the gender/sex contextualizations popular culture uses to authenticate “real men” and “real women?”

About This Series:
What you are reading is a conversation between Cristan Williams and John Stoltenberg that began more than a year ago. In April 2014 John published a personal essay about Andrea Dworkin, his life partner for thirty-one years, titled “Andrea Dworkin Was Not Transphobic.” Cristan happened to read it and had a question for John, which she asked him in the comment thread. Unaware of who Cristan was, John replied. Shortly thereafter Cristan contacted John asking if he would be willing to be interviewed in The TransAdvocate, where she is managing editor. One email led to another and before long the two were writing back and forth in what became a wide-ranging, nearly book-length conversation. After several months, they realized what it was all about: “the radical inclusivity of radical feminism,” a conviction that both Cristan and John deeply share. That conversation, which is ongoing, is being published for the first time in installments on this site.
  1. Morris, Jan. 2002. In Conundrum, 149. New York: New York Review of Books.

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