Future of Gender: Part 3 : Q & A
This post covers the Q & A section of a talk given by Professor Stephen Whittle, at Durham University in 2015. We pick up the talk at 59:22.
This will be added to my series on Whittle which you can find here:
You can watch the YouTube of Whittle’s talk here:
The first question relates to this book by David Valentine:
The book is based on ethnographic research looking at mainly MTF (Male to female “transgender” people) who he sought out in the drag balls, clinics, bars, support groups and cross-dressing organisations.
The term “transgender” was gaining currency in social settings but also in policy, medical terminology and the legislative context.
Nevertheless there was some resistance to the term “transgender” from the people Valentine encountered, in the nineties; people who preferred to be identified by their sexual orientation and not their “gender identity”. 👇
Whittle is asked if David Valentine is correct that the use of the term “transgender” creates implicit hierarchies, based on race and class.
Whittle chooses to answer the question in terms of the desire, and ability, to pass as the opposite sex, should you wish to do so. She makes an interesting observation on how liberating the computer was in allowing you to pass as the sex you wished you were. On-line “we were who said we were” . A lot of this movement is fostered by the dis-embodied lives of the internet generation. The problem arises when you take your fantasy into real life and demand that it be allowed to trump reality. Nevertheless, Whittle adds, the debate has moved on and “trans” people no longer aspire to “pass” or blend in with normative body types; because the expectation that “trans” people should disappear was “the most oppressive thing that ever happened to us”. My response: Expecting women to accept an obvious man in our single sex spaces is “the most oppressive thing that ever happened to women”.
Whittle follows this up celebrating how many “trans” people there are now in the world; how the smart phone has brought them into our living rooms and trans activists are spreading all over the world. I can think of no other condition where we would celebrate a group of people who are going to be dependent on #BigPharma for life.
The next question comes from an American who ask a question about medical focused on replicating “cis-bodies” . He /She is from the U.S where you can “buy whatever” and he wonders how Whittle feels about bodies “outside the binary”. Whittle gives a rather surprising answer to this, explaining the limitations of achieving a male body for a “trans” man and how she had to reconcile to that difference once she removed her clothes. She now looks on with alarm (this was seven years ago) at people taking flaps of skin from their arms to construct a facsimile of a penis; with all the limitations in terms of sexual function. She even goes so far as to question clinicians “Why are you doing it on kids?”
On “tran women” she is even more blunt.
Whittle elaborates on this theme admitting that there is a lot of denial/self-deception about surgical outcomes. It’s worth sharing these statements in full:
Whittle also points out that our bodies are not like flat pack IKEA furniture, something Mary Harrington calls this treating our bodies as “meat lego”.
Whittle recounts tales he has heard from mother’s who had sons left disappointed at the outcome of the surgeries and its failure to deliver the new life /girlfriend anticipated. Whittle admits a desire to be blunt about these facts and encourage more realistic expectations; though the message is somewhat undercut with the next bit about how having unrealistic dreams can be enjoyable, nevertheless.
There follows a question about how racism was tackled and the use of an essentialist position about race, as a political strategy, even though nobody really believes an essentialist position about race. Whittle is asked how that compares to the politics of “gender”. Whittle talks about how the aim should be that we don’t see “race” anymore. Then she makes an analogy with gender and the gender based violence perpetrated against you because you are a girl, or a boy. (Whittle thinks “gender” creates this violence). Whittle is not explicit about an exact political proposal but the inference is things should get better for females, and males, if we didn’t see “gender”. This ignores the fact that the kind of violence females are subjected to is, frequently, sexual violence, i.e. because of our biological sex. If we pretend sex isn’t real then we can’t see sexism and it’s naive to think this would eradicate sexual violence. Yet, at 1:17 Whittle admits they don’t even know what “gender” is.
The next question is about Facebook and their 51 gender identities. During this exchange we learn that Whittle was involved in the Facebook consultation and personally added six of these “gender identities”. As part of their answer Whittle talks about finding two women with a different style of clothing and, if he asked them to swap clothes, they wouldn’t because “it just isn’t me”. He then makes it clear that he thinks these different styles of dress are different “genders”. Whittle then claims the ability to spot 8 different woman genders based just on looking at women’s outfits! Also she finds it harder with men because their clothing is more. boring; making it abundantly clear he thinks “gender” is your sartorial choices. In the next breath, she says, if you have 51 genders it becomes meaningless and a civilised society will just get rid of the idea of “gender”. I agree we should get rid of the notion of “gender identity” and understand that we are shaped by the treatment we receive as a result of our biological sex and our behaviour, to some degree, is predicated on our biological sex. This does not mean we fit neatly into sexist stereotypes or that women should be limited by our biology, neither can we simply disregard that female bodies are different.
Whittle then talks about cultures that have more than one “gender”. There are, indeed, different cultures that accommodate men, usually gay, by the idea of a different kind of male/gender. These may be a benign way to include gay men. There are less examples of similar accommodations for females. The ones I have found are in societies hardly liberating for women. There are cultures that allow a girl to be treated as “male” if there are no sons in the family. This does not remedy the general position of girls in these societies, instead, it allows the societal structure, which renders girls as less desirable, to remain intact. Similarly societies which allow widows to don a “male” identity to provide for her family. The status of women doesn’t change and, in fact, this exception props up the existing sex hierarchy. See “Bacha Posh”
Or the Burnesha of Albania. 👇
Final question is about the different generations of “trans” people with different understandings of what it means. Does this have implications for the cohesion of the community?
Whittle answers with, firstly, that nobody needs to know your gender and most of the time you don’t need to know what sex people are. He thinks we are obsessed with knowing if you are men, or women, male or female. He adds an anecdote about having to produce documentation showing that he was a woman.
This final statement exposes the regressive nature of this cult. Whittle seems unable to imagine a world where a woman demands to be able to do anything irrespective of her sex. Instead “trans” is envisaged as a liberating project if, crucially, you repudiate your sex. Whittle seems to think the only way a woman can conceive of an occupation which is not “traditional” for women is by identifying out of your sex.
How about a world where women can aspire to transcend societally imposed restrictions, for women, and still own their sex? That would be progressive. Instead, Whittle, seems to live her life as if the only way she could love other women and storm the citadel of male domination is pretending to be a man.
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