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Our Obligations Along Side Our Perpetual Transitions

Pemwrez2009's picture
As a transgender student, and perhaps the only out trans-identified student living on campus to date, it has been a struggle finding and creating a niche on campus for myself. My friends are for the most part allies, and though some have questioned gender and some have even come to identify as “non-conforming” or “gender queer”, I am the only student, to my knowledge, that has committed to a gender identity and the mental and physical transformations that coincide with my interpretation of this gender identity.  
    My greatest hardship throughout this process has been in the development of my identity as a gendered being, as well as a queer individual and a feminist individual. As anyone can imagine, trying to present myself as a queer, transgender feminist is no easy task, as there is backlash from every community in ever label I assign to myself. Like every minority, or marginalized group, there is a struggle to “just be”. Can we ever just be? There is always that question of exposure and the education of others who do not know of lives that are different than their own. In addition, rises the question of who becomes the educator, which makes it almost impossible for trans-people, to exist.
    Similarly to some of the struggles with feminism, certain feminists argue that in order to establish a feminist identity you must make public your feminist ideals and educate others on the blue prints of feminism. Well, just as there is no single definition for a feminist identity, there is no single definition of a transgender identity.
    In my experience, any dialogue or discourse surrounding transgender issues, where the trans-person is educating those who haven’t been exposed, the transgender person has to defend themselves by explaining that they are a human first. After that is said, we are free to express that as a human being we deserve equal rights, as well as security and treatment that are, or should be protected by the law. For some reason, this is easily forgotten in the scientific and psychoanalytic jargon that is used to explain our “condition” which strip us of our experiences and limit us to a medical phenomenon.
    With all of this in mind, I am going to explore the intersections between feminism and obligation and how these ideas relate to transgender / transsexual bodies. If we are marginalized, does this make us responsible for the education to larger groups of people on the issues which have oppressed us? The transgender struggle parallels the feminist struggle as they are both identities that penetrate the private, public and political spheres. There is a struggle to maintain our private identities when there are external pressures to speak up and be vocal about our beliefs and identities. Cixous, for example, strongly encourages us, or even express that as feminists we are obligated to be public and out there with our ideas. We must educate those who do not know what we know. She makes a good point, if feminists, themselves, are not there to educate and speak up, who will? However, the argument is a double edged sword.
“I shall speak about women’s writing: about what it will do. Women must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies--for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Women must put herself into the text--as into the world and into history--by her movement. The future must no longer be determined by the past. I do not deny that the effects of the past are still with us. But I refuse to strengthen them by repeating them, to confer upon them as irremovability the equivalent of destiny, to confuse the biological and the cultural. (Cixous, Page 875)”
    Fighting and teaching is only her interpretation of the feminist experience. What about the feminist experience that is about reclaiming ones silence? If Cixous argues that “woman must put herself into the text--as into the world and into history--by her movement”, isn’t it safe to argue that “her movement” can mean any number of things? If as feminists we are pushing for choice, shouldn’t we acknowledge that a person can choose to contribute to their feminisms in their own ways? The private can be just as political.
    In Schweickart’s article focusing on Reader-Response Theory and Feminist Criticism, she   would argue along with Cixous that feminism is in large part, a platform for changing the world. She approaches this idea, however, by calling to attention the importance of feminist critiques. I do not deny the importance of deconstructing historically patriarchal platforms from which females are seen as the other, however, again there is little to no complexity to how Schweickart sees gender and only one way she sees feminism.
“The feminist story will have at least two chapters: one concerned with feminist readings of male texts, and another with feminist readings of female texts. n addition, in this story, gender will have a prominent role as the locus of political struggle. The story will speak of the difference between men and women, of the way the experience and perspective of women have been systematically and fallaciously assimilated into the generic masculine, and of the need to correct this error. (Schweickart, Page 39)”
    Schweickart’s separatist notions of what a feminist critique can only limit and hinder the development of feminism as a personal ideal. As a transperson, I can see how the language around masculinity has dominated all areas of the lives of anyone who isn’t male-sexed and male  -identified, however, the simplicity around her language is completely non-trans-inclusive and does not leave for the notion of feminism to be only the struggle of female-identified-females.
    As a group, the transgender / transsexual community encounters a lot of backlash from the feminist community as well as the queer community, and obviously the straight-conservative population. From the point of view of many queer identified women, trans-masculine people are very threatening to the queer community because, there is this notion that those of us who have been nurtured by the LGBTQI community will forget about “who we once were” once we experience “male privilege” and become misogynous individuals who quickly conform to a heteronormative lifestyle and relish in all of the benefits that a straight male would. This makes it even more difficult for a trans person to establish a feminist identity. Can I be a feminist according to Cixous and Schweickart if I “switch to the dark side” and become male?
    In my paper, I am also interested in looking at how Spivak complicates these notions of the male and the female. In fact, she problematizes the creation of any such dichotomy because it can create a space in which one group is being defined by another group. This often results in the subjugation of this group under another because one becomes recognized as “the norm” and the one group becomes “the other”. This is extremely important, in that although there is the male that subjugates the female, both male and female subjugate the trans-identity. In addition, Allen’s language around the compartmentalization of the self and how that directly effects the transitioning body. She approaches this by examining the switching of foregrounds and backgrounds to become better in touch with our different feminism.  I acknowledge that we are all in constant states of transition and that we are constantly switching around our foregrounds and backgrounds to better understand ourselves however this is the life of a trans-person and becomes even that much more vital. Transition and compartmentalization plays a tremendous role on the transgender / transexual body. It is evident on a physical, personal and intellectual level. Why is the trans community experiencing the same intellectual struggle from the queer and feminist community, that these groups fought against themselves within the last century?
    Lastly, I want to look to Lakoff and Stryker in the ways that they explain why we categorize our identities, and the ways in which we organize what we know about ourselves. While Stryker looks at gender and identifies the idea of the “unnatural” and how that has deemed the transgender / transsexual body as entitled to lesser treatment, Lakoff analyzes what we are doing when we compartmentalize, and how crucial that has been in our socialization especially from a young age. By contextualizing ones feminism and/or gender, it is possible to deconstruct how it has come to pass, that we are seen as political drones with specified purposes.


Ann Dixon's picture

crossing as a quest narrative

Deirdre McCloskey's Crossing, an autobiography, resonated with me as a quest narrative, an archetypal struggle to create oneself authentically.


Anne Dalke's picture

political drones with specified purposes


I used your last line to title my response, because I don't understand what you are saying there...

What strikes me most in your proposal is two things:

  • the way in which you describe the life of a trans-person as archetypally that of all humans ("we are all in constant states of transition"); &
  • the way in which you insist that chosing to alter a female body to a male one can be a feminist act. I would like to hear you articulate that position, imagining that your audience is members of our class (or readers on the web) who think that feminism is about attending to and valuing women; how does chosing the transition you are choosing fit--or challenge--such presumptions?

The third thing that strikes me here is that all your sources, except of course for Styker, are not focused on trans issues in particular; why aren't you planning to consultthe material that you wanted the class as a whole to read? In To Dysphoria, or Not to Dysphoria, you listed a number of works on both trans- and inter-sex theory that would be useful to you in this project, far more useful than the material, assigned in class, that you review here. Why aren't you planning on using Namaste, Califia, Devor, Feinberg, Gardiner, Preves, Colapinto, and especially Halberstam and Butler?

Both of the latter have done work more recent than the books you list, which should be very helpful to you. See especially Haberstam’s ‘05 In a Queer Time and Place, which looks at the sudden visibility—and appropriation--of the transgender body, and Butler’s ’04 Undoing Gender; she focuses there on both transgender and intersex, and re-thinks some of her earlier work on performativity, in terms of human persistence and survival--in ways you might find of real use in your own project.

Pemwrez2009's picture


so ...i guess my problem with getting on to athenas web is that i have no alum do I sign in?
Ann Dixon's picture

athena's web and currently enrolled students

I don't administer athena's web in any way; I just participate on it as an alum. The alum office used to allow all currently enrolled undergrads to get accounts - apparently (?), they have changed policy to only allow seniors. (But - maybe not - it's only hearsay. Your alum id at least used to be the same as your student id :-).)

Nevertheless, if anyone in class who is not a senior wants to get in touch
with any of the groups of alums on athena's web, I am volunteering to be
a conduit. You could just write me an email, and ask me to post it on 
(whatever) group on athena's web for you, with your email address included.  So for instance, you could write to a group and ask anyone who might help you with your research project on a topic to please send you an email. (If you would like to get in touch with alums for reasons wholly outside of this course, I'm happy to help you do that too.) 


Ann Dixon's picture

connecting with other LGBTQ alums

I'm not sure how widely known is among undergrads, but it is a social networking site for BMC alums (and open to current students, as well). If you go there and register, you will find 2 groups of alums - LGBTQ Alums (250+ of them) and Trans Alums (33 of them) - you can send them emails through the system and/or post on the bulletin board. It's a good place to connect, and you might get some interesting perspectives on the BMC experience there.

Ann '83