It’s in a book! It must be true!

March 21, 2009

BooksI read the piece Speech about transgender surgery makes points for both sides (link here) in the Northern Star – “the all student-produced, independent media at Northern Illinois University” – with an increasing sense of frustration and a certain amount of headdesking at the seemingly inevitable display of rectal-cranial inversion demonstrated by high-powered cis academics. Once again, it seems, we have cis people Explaining Things to trans people while the cluephone forlornly rings unanswered.

The gist of it: Sharon Sytsma, an associate professor of philosophy, gave a speech titled, “Adult Sex Reassignment Surgery: Is it Worth it?” The good professor’s considered response: yes and no.


“[TS/TG people] shouldn’t be convinced that it’s absolutely necessary without exploring the option of living however one wants to live, whether it’s male or female or somewhere in between,” Sytsma said.

Okay, well at least you’re not openly advocating reparative therapy. It’s true enough that not all TS/TG people want a medical transition that goes through to surgery, and not all TS/TG people are binary identified. And many TS/TG people do explore various other ways of living. Or, at least, try to.

“Some people feel… they can try to stay away from any recognized gender identity.”

Recognised by whom? Because to my mind, this is where the trouble starts: the dominant cis society in which TS/TG people have to exist gets very twitchy about people who don’t fully conform to the gender binary. Twitchy enough to believe that the binary pigeonholes should be imposed on gender variant people with extreme prejudice. Ask Angie Zapata. Oh wait, you can’t: she was murdered by a cis man who couldn’t deal with the notion of a woman with a penis.

Sytsma provided a chart…

Oh goody, a chart. I hope it was a Venn diagram. I *heart* Venn diagrams.

… about “the human continuum” which explains the concept of “mosaicism.” Mosaicism basically poses that psychologically and biologically, males and females are on opposite ends of the spectrum, but there are areas in between where individuals can identify themselves. This can happen from different facets from the chromosomal level to sexual orientation.

I’m not entirely comfortable about reducing human lives and experience to a flat 2D representation, even though I’m generally in agreement with the basic idea that there is much more to gender identity than a simple binary.

And is that an essentialist undercurrent I can feel swirling around my ankles, trying to knock me off-balance and drag me under?

Sytsma felt while it may be difficult, people should strive for authenticity in identity, that is the “value of being true to ourselves.”


“Difficult”? “Difficult”??? Dear Maud, talk about understatement. Talk about clue-free.

“Difficult” for whom? Difficult for a blinkered and reactionary cis society to accept that there are people who Do Not Want to live in either of the two officially approved gender identities. Difficult for that same cis society to let non- binary identified TS/TG people get on with their lives without prejudice, without harassment and without resorting to violent words and actions in its numerous attempts to force TS/TG people to conform to dangerously outmoded ideas.

“Authenticity in identity”? As defined by whom? Are you saying that TS/TG people’s identities aren’t authentic? Are our identities only authentic if they meet cis people’s criteria?

In another handout she gave, Sytsma said that having sex reassignment surgery is good if the candidate feels they need it…

That’s very generous of you to give your approval, Professor, I must say. Remind me, who appointed you arbiter of my self-identification? And who asked you for your approval, again? TS/TG people? No? Well, fancy that.

…in order to truly conform to “their true essence and spirit.” But she said surgery is not optimal if the candidate does it to affirm self-worth.


…*sighs, picks up the pink Sparklehammer Of Deconstruction*…

  1. “Their”. Them. Us and them = cis and trans. Ever tried reversing the polarity? Us and them = trans and cis. Let your giant brain muse on that perspective for a while. Then try ‘us = trans and cis’.
  2. “Essence”. Is that related to essentialism, by any chance? Essentialist arguments propounded by cis people have done huge amounts of harm to TS/TG people. As have social constructivist arguments. They don’t exist in isolation – and neither do TS/TG people.
  3. “Spirit”? Do not understand. I hope you’re not getting all metaphysical and religious on me. Please define.
  4. “Optimal”? “Self-worth”? Hello, cluephone’s still ringing off the hook. I don’t know about you, Professor, but I underwent surgery to help bring my gender dissonance into a state where I could manage it without contemplating suicide because my life was otherwise too unbearable. I didn’t do it specifically to make myself feel better about myself; I did it first and foremost as a matter of survival. I didn’t go into it thinking I was going to come out with a new personality. “Self-worth”? What does that even mean?
  5. Also, surgery is not the be-all and end-all, the holy grail of transitioning. For some, it’s part of a process of self-identification. For others, that process doesn’t include surgery. That’s because, amazingly, TS/TG people are humans too, with our own individual takes on the subject of our identities. We’re not these abstract objects, lab rats for you to practise your vivisection techniques on.

“Live your life as who you really are – you could be either or both,” Sytsma said. “Self-worth isn’t a function of genitalia or clothes.”

Time and again, cis people have proved that they won’t let gender variant people “Live your life as who you really are”. Fact is, Professor, that cis people just can’t stand difference and diversity. Or rather, they can – as long as it restricts itself to two categories.

Also, “you could be either or both” – you’re still using binary terms. How serious are you about this “mosaicism” of yours? It’s a very pretty word, granted – but it obviously has no place in your practical reality other than as some vague, well-meaning, woolly-liberal abstract theory.

“Self-worth isn’t a function of genitalia or clothes” – so why introduce the term into a speech about “Adult Sex Reassignment Surgery”?

But what’s this? Oh looky, here come more cis people to provide backup in their fight to uphold the gender binary at the same time as telling TS/TG people not to. “Do as I say, not as I do”?

Diana Swanson, a coordinator for the event, felt the speech was “interesting and helpful.”
“Scientists and sociologists are still figuring it out,” Swanson said.
“[Sytsma] kind of giving us a way to start understanding.”

I have an “interesting and helpful” idea for you: try listening to actual TS/TG people for a change. Stop all your irrelevant theorising, come down from your ivory towers, leave your sacred groves of academe and interact with real! live! TS/TG people. You might actually learn something about us, our lives, our experiences, our realities. Or does the thought that you might then have to go away and rewrite your fancy theories sound like too much work?

The thing that appealed the most to Christine Hanley, senior special education major, was how the speech gave a full picture rather than sticking to one point.

It doesn’t sound to me like it did. It sounds to me like it simply continued the endless objectification and othering of TS/TG people by academic cis people who are either unable or unwilling to see anything beyond their own sheltered existences. You spend all this time and money on furthering your education and you can’t even come up with one single practical, useful idea, that could be applied right now to make it possible for non- binary identified TS/TG people to live the lives that are right for them, free from interference, prejudice and violence from cis people?

Pfft. Take your useless damned theories off my body.


6 Responses to “It’s in a book! It must be true!”

  1. Caitlyn Says:

    Well, shoot. Aren’t there any of us out there that are academics that could speak to them? I mean, seriously. It’s not like trans people are ignorant or anything. There definitely needs to be more representation in these circles by transgendered people themselves. Separate but equal does nobody good in the end.

    I will DEFINITELY agree with you that while academics like to pick apart gender expression that isn’t in the binary, our society on the whole frowns upon it. I would like to see a story from the same source written about that and how some of us are injured and/or killed because of that line of thinking.

  2. queenemily Says:

    Oh Caitlyn! Why would you write a paper about trans rights when you could write something sexy about deconstructing the gender binary? Actual trans people have a habit of being murdered, unemployed and assaulted. So depressing.

    Much better if she just weigh up whether she gives her permission for us to have surgery. Cos yeah, cheers, I was totally waiting around for a cis person to give me the ok.

    “Cis academics writing crap papers about trans people: Is it worth it?”

  3. What a contradictory mish-mash of ideas, I agree. Any well-meaning cis person trying to learn would come out far more confused than when they went in…

    *sighs, picks up the pink Sparklehammer Of Deconstruction*…

    Are you selling these? :)

  4. GallingGalla Says:

    when i see shit like this, i think of the film “qallunaat: why white people are funny“.

    we need to put cis ppl under the same microscope that inuit are putting white ppl under. find out what makes them tick, cos cis ppl are just so *odd*.

  5. Helen G Says:

    daisydeadhead: Are you selling these? :)

    I’ll be taking orders any time soon!

  6. aggieninepence Says:

    Put me down for the next one after Daisy please :).

    Nice bit of withering deconstruction of the ‘deconstruction’ here … I’m not sure I could have made it that far through without headdesk related concussion.

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