Post-identity feminism and the “problem of agency”

May 10, 2009

transgender-symbol_103x120In his post Feminist Theory and Identity Politics (link here) A Very Public Sociologist writes about a recent talk given by Professor Lois McNay, a cis women academic at the University of Oxford, when she talked about how feminism is “moving into an era of post-identity politics, which is stepping away from issues of difference and is grappling again with the problem of agency”.

Professor McNay’s theory serves only to highlight her own privileged position, comfortably ensconced in the leafy groves of academe. Any trans woman who has had even the smallest brush with cis women’s feminism will know only too well that the overwhelming majority of cis women feminists – if they even give a fuck about trans women to start with – are openly hostile to our presence within “their” movement. That stance, by definition, seeks to deny us not only our agency but our very right to exist at all.

Why? Because our existence demands the rethinking of vast swathes of feminist theory and the reshaping of 40 years of transphobic attitudes. And that, apparently, is simply too much like hard work. Far easier to demand that – in the words of feminist icon and transphobe Janice Raymond – we are morally mandated out of existence.

And to suggest that “the problem of agency” is feminism’s concern when so many cis women feminists flatly deny trans women’s agency is just a joke.

You want to talk about the “problem of agency”? Because I agree that it exists. No question. So where shall we start?

  • The “agency” enshrined in an Equality Bill where trans rights were added almost as an afterthought, and are so poorly protected as to be almost worthless?
  • The “agency” of a non-gendered person living in a state which demands that per identifies as either male or female?
  • And where was this “agency” when Allen Andrade unilaterally decided that Angie Zapata had no right to live, because he disapproved of her genital topography?
  • What about the “agency” of an LGBT solidarity organisation to operate without state-imposed conditions? Or the “agency” of trans people in a country where the state tacitly condones transphobic violence?
  • The “agency” trans people have when it comes to changing our documentation to match our gender identities without having to jump through a needlessly complex series of hoops?
  • Where’s the “agency” of trans people in a centralised database system that requires us to pay for two different ID cards?
  • How about that old favourite, the “agency” that trans women have to use (cis) women’s toilets?
  • Or the “agency” we have in a healthcare system which demands that we submit to being pathologised as “mentally disordered” before it will dispense the medications and surgeries which have been shown countless times to ameliorate a condition which is rooted in how we perceive our identity?

I could find many, many more examples of the forms of “agency” denied to us but, frankly, any cis person – be they feminist, socialist or some high-faluting academic an ivory tower – who doesn’t ‘get it’ by now is demonstrating not only a monumental failure to grasp the simple fact that trans people across the world are forcibly reminded every single day that our “agency” is defined, administered and controlled by cis people – but also that, as long as the situation remains unchanged, there cannot possibly be any such thing as a “post-identity feminism”.

2 Responses to “Post-identity feminism and the “problem of agency””

  1. anarchafemme Says:

    The vast majority of cis white TAB straight middle class feminists and the vast majority of feminist theory (which they produce) only care about the agency of people in their privileged group. Also I think the psychiatric stigma on trans people is a natural place for solidarity with other people subjected to psychiatric stigma, beyond myself and the other trans people who are also mentally interesting.

    I think what’s happened with feminism – similar to what’s happened with queer liberation – is that enough gains were made that the most privileged feminists saw an opportunity to assimilate into positions of power in white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy, took it, and part of the way they reinforce that position is denying the agency of anyone oppressed in the ways they’re privileged. The whole talking about moving back to issues of agency is just an attempt to obscure and reinforce this as you note.

    I can definitely foresee the same thing happening with trans liberation down the road – where it becomes a movement to let TAB straight/acceptable homosexual gender conforming white upper middle class NT trans people assimilate. We can’t think we’re immune to the same mistakes feminism and queer liberation made. I think the only solution is to view ourselves as working to end all oppression, everywhere, and just talking about what specific battles we’re working on.

    Sorry for just immediately taking it to the larger connection, but this is part of a larger problem in feminism.

  2. Jessikat Says:

    Sadly it’s already happening over here in the UK. The ‘mainstream’ of trans activism, those who have the ear of government;
    a) only care for middle & upper class, able, genderconforming, minimally-sexual, “normal” TS people (unless they can score some kutos by temporarily appropriating other trans lives), and
    b) a good number of them seem mainly in it for power and status, rather than that little issue of *equality*.

    Thus not only do they attempt to exclude any “abnormal” trans people from activism, but they succeed in knowingly entrenching the State’s and Society’s very narrow tolerance of “acceptable” transness and the former’s complete blanking of gender variance.

    We do have a ‘counter’ open trans equality movement in the UK, but the (normal minority) mainstream have become a mirror of the separatist ‘Lesbian & Gay’ sector (i.e. Stonewall or HRC), creating themselves a nice little gravity well for funds, resources, opportunity, and influence that is difficult to break down.


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