The reaction in left circles to the recent pronouncements by Deep Green Resistance, elevating bigotry against trans people to the official policy of that organisation has largely been a positive development. In the past week, we have seen a number of members – including one founding member – resign from the group in disgust. In addition, left venues such as the Bluestocking bookshop in New York City, have denied a platform to DGR, explicitly citing their promotion of anti-trans bigotry as the reason for cancelling a DGR representative’s appearance there.
It is heartening to see that so many leftists refuse to grant quarter to bigotry, especially when that bigotry camouflages itself with a faux-feminist discourse. There have been other times.
Predictably, however, there has also been a backlash by defenders not only of the right to spread bigotry against trans people, but of the right to demand that other people accept that bigotry as a leftist, feminist position. Thus, the Bluestocking Facebook page has been flooded with accusations of “McCarthyism” (an ironic charge, coming, as it is, from defenders of a policy and ideology that has long been used to engage in witch hunts against “suspected” trans people). According to defenders of the DGR trans exclusion policy, actions like Bluestocking’s are stifling legitimate debate.
“Debate”, it must be said, is truly the last refuge of claims whose sell-by date has passed. Climate change deniers have long promoted the notion that there is a scientific debate on the existence and role of human actions in climate change, even as it has become undeniable that the evidence is in, and the only real debate remaining is: How bad will it be, and how soon? Creationists demand that schools “teach the controversy” over whether biodiversity on earth arose by means of a lengthy and ongoing process of evolution, or by magic. “Bell Curve” racists like Andrew Sullivan insist that legitimate debate is stifled when people point out that their claims are racist and based in pseudoscience. Zionist propagandists delight in accusing those who acknowledge the occupation of Palestine and the racist oppression of Palestinians as fact of stifling debate on the subject. And holocaust deniers, too, accuse those who dismiss their fraudulent claims and point out their underlying racism of fearing debate.
It is an extremely popular tactic: If your claims have been comprehensively discredited, demand a “debate” with those who have participated in the debunking. If they accede to the demand, they have legitimised your claims by affording them a place in the discussion. If they refuse to legitimise your claims by granting them an undeserved place in serious discussion, cry censorship, and play the victim.
As feminists have increasingly realised that they can’t legitimately call themselves feminists if they limit their concern to the interests of some (white, economically privileged, cis) women, the Debate Gambit has become the fallback position of those who seek to have their anti-trans bigotry accepted as a legitimate feminist position.
In so doing, they seek to blunt criticism by a strategy of:
- (a) focussing on academic abstractions and unverified anecdotes in order to keep the “debate” away from the very concrete oppression faced by trans people, particularly trans women, and especially trans women of colour;
- (b) denying – and expressing shock at – the exterminationist implications of their ideology (sometimes these are quite explicit, as in the work of Janice Raymond);
- (c) claiming to support trans people’s “civil rights”, in hopes that their listeners will not realise that “civil” is used as a qualifier to exclude the basic human dignities trans people seek, such as the right to have their genders and identities accorded the same respect as those of cis people and the right to speak with authority on their own lives; and
- (d) the Invented People/Joan Peters Strategy: Deny the history and experience of trans people by claiming that their existence is an invention of a medical establishment that has conned them into transition. Like its Zionist counterpart, this technique serves both to delegitimise trans people’s existence (“they’re a recent invention”) and undermine trans people’s authority to talk about their own lives and experiences (“they’re dupes, liars, etc.”).
In the following, I will focus on (d), the Joan Peters/Invented People Strategy, both because it serves to deny trans people their right to participate in debates on their own lives by poisoning the well, and because it demonstrates the dishonesty, (wilful) ignorance, and overall intellectual vacuity of the trans-exclusionist positions expressed by DGR and their defenders. in so doing, I would note that similarities with the delegitimisation of the Palestinians and the marginalisation of people with disabilities are by no means coincidental, and should surprise no one who has been paying attention. Bigots rarely show the spark of originality.
This strategy is also worthy of particular attention because of the profound contempt it shows for trans people’s right to speak about their own lives and experiences. It is based almost entirely on the production of an academia to which trans people (especially trans women) have nearly no access due to pervasive discrimination. The result is a discussion in which cis (non-trans) people talk with other cis people about trans people, who exist only as the objects of others’ intellectual curiosity. As such, the results of this echo chamber have no more legitimacy than would that of a “women’s studies” discipline in which only men could participate, or than would the field of “African-American studies” were only white people allowed access to it. This is, in short, the sort of institutional structure that gave us notions like “hysteria” and “drapetomania”.
The “Invented People” Strategy
In order to claim that trans people live on a historical terra nullius, promoters of anti-trans bigotry assert that transsexuality is a new development, primarily originating in the medical establishment, and results from the advent of the technology that makes physical transition possible.
This is actually rather a daunting onus of proof to assume. In order to claim that transsexuality did not exist prior to the advent of the medical technology that makes physical transition possible, one would have to prove that, prior to the advent of that technology, there was no one, anywhere, who experienced any form of gender dysphoria, that no one anywhere felt a pervasive sense of wrongness about the gendered aspects of their bodies, and that no one anywhere actually went so far as to live in a gender other than the one corresponding to their sex assignment at birth.
It would not be sufficient to claim, for example, that no verbal expressions of this sense of dysphoria have been preserved in the historical record, since we are talking about feelings that are heavily stigmatised in the European cultural sphere (including Europe’s settler colonies) even now, and even more so in previous times. As such, obviously, people would be rather unlikely to express those sentiments on the record for fear of persecution.
However, the historical record does indeed contain accounts of people who lived in a gender other than the one imposed on them at birth (a fact that is even acknowledged by some of those who deny the historical existence of transsexuality and gender dysphoria, making the onus of proof inherent in such claims not just difficult to bear, but impossible.
The way in which this issue has been dealt with by those academics who claim that transsexuality/gender dysphoria did not exist prior to the advent of the technology for physical transition has been quite simply to dodge the issue altogether.
Rather than meet the onus of proof they have assumed, those who make this claim simply redefine transsexuality, making physical transition an element of the condition itself (see e.g., Bernice Hausman, “Changing Sex”).
This is, of course, bootstrapping on a spectacular scale. Any condition can be defined out of existence by the same technique. One could define “headaches”, for example, to require the use of paracetamol or other analgesics, and then assert that headaches did not exist until the medical establishment developed these technologies and needed to find a market for them. One could claim that cancer did not exist until the medical establishment needed a market for chemotherapy.
Furthermore, if one accepts this nonsense, one must also (and Hausman does) deny the existence of trans people who do not physically transition. Of course, every trans person who has physically transitioned had a substantial period of their life in which they did not transition — until they did. In other words, if we accept this definition, we must assume that people who were in no way transsexual somehow, suddenly became transsexual at the moment that they were permitted (or, as bigoted academic accounts of transsexuality would have it, convinced) by the medical establishment to begin physical transition, and put together the funds necessary for what is a very expensive process. That this is taken seriously at all tells us much about the intellectual culture in modern academia.
Trans People: Dupes of a Transition-Pushing Medical Establishment?
Leaving aside that this bootstrapping redefinition itself is transparent intellectual dishonesty worthy of Joan Peters, it is worth pointing out how condescending this account is. In this account, trans people are not active, thinking, feeling subjects who are experiencing a problem and see a way to deal with it. Instead, they are passive objects who never once experienced any desire to feminise/virilise their bodies until the medical establishment came along and sold them on it. Having been told by the medical to transition physically, with all of the economic and social burdens – including the loss of their homes, ostracism by friends and family, police harassment, and, with horrifying regularity, rape and murder – this entails, they simply meekly obeyed.
In reality, however, endocrinologist Harry Benjamin, who pioneered cross-gender hormone therapy, showed no interest at all in facilitating physical transition, until trans women started showing up at his surgery and asking to be put on the newly available injectable oestrogens in order to transition physically. This we know both from Benjamin’s own account and that of trans women who approached him at the time. As is the case even today with the medical establishment, those seeking to transition physically did not need to be convinced to do so – they needed to convince someone in a position to facilitate physical transition to allow them to do so.
“Indeed,” as Julia Serano notes in her excellent Whipping Girl, the medical establishment “didn’t “invent” sex reassignment, but were dragged into it kicking and screaming. And the fact that the gatekeepers [in the medical establishment] almost universally favored strict restrictions that greatly reduced the number of people undergoing sex reassignment clearly indicates that they were, at best, reluctant advocates.”
The absurdity of this narrative – in which the medical establishment convinces people to transition physically who were not otherwise thinking of doing so – becomes all the more apparent when one considers the institutional structures created by the medical establishment with little or no input from trans people (who weren’t even allowed a single seat on the committee that determines the standard of care until very recently, and over strenuous objections) to limit and police physical transition. In order to transition physically according to the rules created by the medical establishment, one must go through multiple layers of bureaucracy.
First, in order to obtain hormone therapy, one must convince a qualified psychologist that one is indeed a “true transsexual” (based on definitions created by the medical establishment that are entirely arbitrary and significantly dependent on conformity with the preferred gender stereotypes of the clinician in question), and obtain a letter stating as much. Generally, one is required to have lived – without the benefit of hormonal transition – in the identified gender for an extended period of time, which is an extremely dangerous requirement to meet, given that the lack of hormone therapy makes many trans people readily identifiable as such, exposing them to stigmatisation and violence. In addition to this, one must of course often come up with the money to see an endocrinologist and pay for the hormones.
If and when one decides to obtain sex-reassignment surgery, one must obtain not just one, but two letters from qualified psychologists stating that one meets whatever their arbitrary, frequently sexist, criteria are. Few surgeons are willing to perform SRS without these letters. This process once again involves substantial expense and humiliation. If, however, one clears this hurdle, one need “only” come up with the five-figure sum of money required to carry out the operation, plus enough money to get through what is sometimes a significant recovery period without an income. Many trans people are unable to do so, or unable/unwilling to take the risks involved in what is, after all, major surgery. However, proof of this surgery is very often required in order to change the gender entry on government identification papers (and a mismatch between that gender entry and a person’s actual presentation frequently leads to harassment when carrying out routine tasks that require identification, including boarding a plane).
Those who claim that the medical establishment encourages, or even coerces, people to transition who wouldn’t otherwise transition must, and generally do, ignore all of these readily ascertained facts. They must (and do) further ignore the fact that trans people have struggled for decades to get these hurdles loosened or eliminated, demanding respect for their capacity to make their own medical decisions. It bears noting that this is not a minor point: One cannot simultaneously acknowledge the well-documented restrictions imposed on physical transition by the medical establishment and the trans community’s long struggle to gain and broaden access to transition-related health care and claim that trans people are being duped into physical transition by a medical establishment eager to promote transition. Faced with this obvious contradiction, anti-trans bigots in academia simply pretend it doesn’t exist. That this is not sufficient to discredit them as academics is, once again, a comment on the standards of contemporary intellectual culture.
In addition to being simply false from a historical standpoint, the claims that trans people are passive dupes of a medical establishment that cons them into transitioning renders invisible the real relationship between trans people and the medical/gatekeeper establishment. Far from being one in which trans people passively comply with a medical/gatekeeper establishment that sells them on the idea of transition, this relationship has generally been one of hostility and suspicion, sometimes latent, sometimes quite open.
The conflict is fundamental: Gatekeepers in the medical establishment seek to safeguard their authority to police the transition process and decide who gets access to transition-related health care, and trans people seek to assert their personal autonomy and their right to make their own health care decisions by subverting that authority in numerous ways.
Sometimes, this takes the form of organised, public struggle against the gatekeeper establishment’s colonisation of trans people’s lives. Emblematic examples would include the movement, largely led by Kelley Winters, to demand that transsexuality no longer be listed in the DSM as a mental disorder, as well as the organised backlash of the trans community against the bigoted and fraudulent book The Man Who Would Be Queen by J. Michael Bailey. One might also mention the movement in Argentina that culminated in the parliament’s adoption of the Ley de identidad de género (Gender Identity Act), which establishes that all people have a legal right to access transition-related health care without having to jump through anyone’s hoops (the same law also bans the nonconsensual sex-assignment surgeries performed on intersex people).
In everyday life, however, this resistance takes more subtle forms. Trans people routinely exchange information on specific gatekeepers in order to avoid those who take the most restrictive, stereotypical, and authoritarian attitudes towards transition, and discuss what specific stereotypes particular gatekeepers require trans people to meet in order to gain permission to access transition-related care. This information is then used in order to meet those stereotypical requirements just long enough to get access to needed health care and get on with one’s life. Other times, it involves trans people strategising and supporting each other in order to circumvent the entire gatekeeper process, by finding clinicians who will provide transition-related care without gatekeeper authorisation, or by finding sources of hormones, etc., that avoid dealing with the medical/gatekeeper establishment altogether.
This day-to-day resistance is reflected in the complaints expressed about trans people by gatekeepers in the professional literature and related settings. They frequently complain that trans people are “stubborn”, lamenting that trans people have often decided to transition on their own, before even meeting with a gatekeeper, rather than letting the gatekeeper make that decision for them. Trans people’s resistance to submit to gatekeeper “therapy” that is more focussed on meeting gatekeepers’ needs to enforce gender conformity than any need individual trans people might have for psychotherapy lead gatekeepers to describe them as “difficult” or “therapy-resistant”. And, of course, the fact that trans people must conform to a fabricated, stereotypical narrative developed by cis gatekeepers in order to access health care, and thus must attempt to fit their own histories and experiences within that restrictive framework in their dealings with gatekeepers, leads gatekeepers to describe trans people as “deceptive”, rather than stopping to think about whether the arbitrary requirements they impose are valid, or whether a strictly authoritarian relationship where one person has the absolute authority to deny another person something that person desperately needs might be itself inimical to trust.
It would quite simply be difficult to get the relationship between trans people and the medical establishment more wrong if one tried.
These facts, which make up an important part of trans people’s daily lives, are readily accessible to anyone who actually listens to trans people talk about their lives in a setting and with an attitude conducive to trust. Information about trans people’s more public and organised struggles with the medical/gatekeeper establishment, written by trans people themselves, is readily available online. Those who make trans people out to be the passive “dupes” of a medical establishment that wants them to transition clearly are either ignorant of elementary, easily confirmed facts about a subject on which they claim to be authorities, or they are well aware of it, and hope that their audiences are not. Either way, by any serious intellectual standards, this would utterly disqualify them from any “debate” on the subject.
It bears repeating at this point that the intellectual context in which this and related “theories” have arisen is an academic system to which trans people – particularly trans women – have virtually no access. These “theories” have been developed by cis people talking to other cis people about trans people, and entirely dismiss (or distort beyond recognition) what trans people have to say about themselves and their own lived experiences. The result is an academic echo chamber in which trans people are merely objects of intellectual curiosity, and never invited to develop theories about their own lives and experiences.
Instead of using trans people’s lived experiences as one test of the validity of theories developed by and about cis people, trans people and their experiences are shoehorned into theories developed without their involvement, and with no respect for what they might contribute to a discussion about their lives.. Put simply, it is an intellectually vacuous exercise that oppresses and objectifies trans people both in its “theoretical” content and in the exclusive manner in which that content has been developed. It has no more right to be included in left “debates” than “theories” about the genetic inferiority of people of colour, homosexuality as a “bourgeois perversion”, or claims that the Palestinians only arrived in Palestine after Zionist colonisation, and are all lying about their expulsion from their homes in 1948.
The role of the left should not be to “debate” with bigotry, but to eliminate it.