In which I shamefully steal borrow Isaac Asimov’s title.

In this book, Asimov discusses the nature of knowledge and the unfortunate binary nature of our understandings. To a skeptical English student, he explains that the revision of science is not uncertainty, but the revision and improvement of knowledge. Heliocentric orbits are a better understanding than Earth centered ones, but are further improved by knowing that the orbits are ellipses, and even further improved by knowing that the sun is not the center of the universe. Revision is not the destruction of the former, because not all answers are equally wrong. His example (paraphrased here from memory) is a young girl asked to spell “Sugar” for a test.

The are several options. Sugar, sucrose, C6H12O6, shugar, and xhjkly.

Which one is correct? Spelling is almost never graded on a sliding scale, and so like many of our ideas and formulations of knowledge, they get evaluated in right/wrong and good/evil terms. Yet, surely some of these responses display more/different knowledge about sugar than others. Is chemical formula better than phonetic spelling? For whom, under what circumstances?

Thus enter, transphobia and “The Transsexual Empire.”

I’ve been reading Sandy Stone’s rejoinder, “The Empire Strikes Back,” which a really super fabulous blog linked to a little while back. It was either Jay, or B|L, or Piny, or oh, I feel terrible but my memory is like a steel sieve sometimes. Sorry. Feel free to claim credit if it was you.

The point is that Sandy gets to a critical point here, when discussing the narratives of transpeople in the early days of the movement:

No wonder feminist theorists have been suspicious. Hell, I’m suspicious….Besides the obvious complicity of these accounts in a Western white male definition of performances gender, the authors also reinforce a binary, oppositional mode of gender identification. They go from being unambiguous men, albeit unhappy men, to unambiguous women. There is no territory between.

Yet this statement occurs in a work that is deeply affirmative, and explores the consequences of categorizing what the “correct” response to “gender dysphoria” is. Hint, it involves a lot of people telling shrinks the same story because it’s the one that the medical establishment wants to hear. The construction of lives, especially these lives, occurs under the gaze of power. Stone examines critically, but remains committed to finding truth in trans narratives. Not as some deep artifact beneath socialization, but in the trace of the continued negotiation and contestation of gender and sex through embodiment.

Which is why I bring up the relativity of wrong. Because it’s precisely what’s going on in Stone’s work. Without getting into the boogy-person of false consciousness, we can play attention to the cultural frameworks that surround the process of identity construction/maintenance. Given limited choices, these women chose identities that depended on extremely “femme” conventions and ideas of binaried gender. To wit:

Hedy Jo Star, who was a professional stripper, says in I Changed My Sex!: “I wanted the sensual feel of lingerie against my skin, I wanted to brighten my face with cosmetics. I wanted a strong man to protect me.”

To which we can rightly express some concern in terms of this narrative confirming and conforming to sexist notions of women’s identity. But Stone’s project is not to debunk Star’s idea of her life. It is rather to show the conditions, which are still not completely met, under which women have the actual freedom to construct identities that are liberating for themselves and others. We should not doubt that for Star, being a woman as she understood it was a better answer for her than being a man in that culture. Revision as improvement and not erasure is possible…but we have to be willing to see promise in the imperfect.

-sly

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