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None Shall Pass: Trans and the Rewriting of the Body
‘Wanting’ has an obvious double meaning. To want something in the ordinary sense is to wish for it. But want is also lack. The two meanings are not necessarily separable. To want for nothing is not necessarily to have everything, but to be without nothing that one could wish for. Therefore if someone says, “I want a sex change,” they are both describing a wish and naming a lack. Paradoxically, naming is also a way of forgetting. As soon as we give a name to whatever it is that we are wanting, we can forget the questions that circled, shark-like, around that lack. As if the relief that we get from naming our desire is partly just that the questions finally fucking stop.
Reading the biographies and hearing the testimonies of trans people, one very rarely gets a sense of the certainty that is often monolithically ascribed to trans people.[*] Far more often than the stereotyped thought that, “I always knew I was a woman trapped in a man’s body,” one encounters years of passionate detective work, pained questioning, theories formed, ditched, taken up again, revised, before finally somehow through the osmosis of popular culture, they arrived at the answer that they were trans.
But what sort of answer is it? What might it mean to be trans? None of the answers to this question are particularly satisfactory. It has been suggested that much of the laudatory popular reception of trans women like Caitlyn Jenner is invested in a seductive fantasy that sex can become a domain of pure choice. In this view, trans means going beyond the limits of sexual difference, beyond the bedrock of castration, toward a limitless protean malleability contingent only on the state of technological change. Arguably, the TERF sneer about trans women is invested in exactly the same fantasy, but from the point of view of resenting it and regarding it as a poststructuralist-inflected, identitarian threat to their entire political identity.
When people talk about their experience of being trans, on the other hand, this utopia of the body — of the body without lack, endlessly adjustable to satisfy every desire — is rarely in evidence. On the contrary, often the first thing they talk about is pain. “You can’t really understand it unless you have felt it.” “You find out what hurts and why it hurts and try to make sense of it.” “I knew there was some impulse in me that felt very unhappy about having a male body and being read as male. … It’s like a physical pain which is very hard to put into words. It is beyond language.”[†] The pain is about something not adding up, a failure of things to coincide that should coincide. The demand for a different body thus comes from the knowledge that something is amiss, a lack we could call desire, a pain we could call longing.
And with what else, other than longing, would one undergo the social and physical dangers of being trans? These can include the risks of surgery, of course. They can include the loss of sexual pleasure. And they can include the possibility that upon transitioning you discover that this isn’t what you wanted after all; that, in fact, it was an answer designed to renounce your desire. But even if, as is the case for most trans men and women, there isn’t an actual surgical transition, and even if you navigate the hurdles of spousal consent, documentation of suffering from ‘gender dysphoria,’ living ‘as’ the other sex for a period of two years – even if all goes well, there are risks.
Ideally, when you adopt a trans identity, you find a new place from which to speak: you are accepted as the man or woman you want to be. And yet already, the dilemmas begin since, as Juliet Jacques suggests, in the effort to pass and avoid stigma, you can end up “swapping one form of being closeted for another”. “Silence equals death,” Jacques says. “Disappearing is very unhelpful in terms of building a culture for ourselves. And it’s just not physically possible for most of us.” On the other hand, increased trans visibility also brings death in the backlash. The rate of transgender murder in the United Stated reached a record high last year. To ‘pass’ as a woman is to automatically surrender the social power that derives from being recognised as male; and also to take on the misogyny directed at women. To not ‘pass’ on the other hand is to be conducted toward in a different register, that reserved for gender freaks, those who confuse people’s gender-coded responses. The man who fancies a trans woman from a distance, then spots an Adam’s apple, may go through at first feeling entitled to satisfaction of his lust, then feeling as though his attraction and arousal has been elicited dishonestly, and act out accordingly. The dilemma is redoubled by the often contradictory demands of transphobic culture, demands which are impossible to to satisfy. Jacques writes in her memoir Trans of how she “discovered that transexual people should not ‘deceive’ anyone about who they were, but shouldn’t be open about it either.” The tone of TERF eristic is often similar. “Call yourself whatever you like, and express that identity however you like,” the feminist academic Rebecca Reilly-Cooper tells trans-women with smarmy obliviousness, “but don’t expect anyone else to care”. Advice that, of course, no trans woman could take literally, if only because people do care in the most consequential way.
Unless and until the Transgender Equality Inquiry’s recommendations are implemented in law, the majority of trans people are expected to ‘prove’ their trans-ness by living ‘as’ the sex they wish to be recognised as for two years. This necessitates collusion with gender normativity, for which trans people are often criticised and which they do not necessarily wish to do. They are also expected to get a document from a psychiatrist or sex health specialist, certificating ‘gender dysphoria’. This necessitates collusion with medicalising discourses, which is to the disadvantage of trans people. If they are married, they require spousal consent. This necessitates bargaining with a partner’s feelings for basic civil rights, which is demeaning to trans people. And yet, of course, while changing the law will remove some barriers, it will open up new lines of attack on trans people. In particular, self-declaration is already being taken to mean that anyone who fancies being a woman for any frivolous reason, even if only to get into the women’s bathroom, can do so. Those for whom trans-ness is ontologically dubious will have new ways to dismiss the testimonies of trans people.
Briefly, the decision to ‘come out’ as trans, as if wasn’t already emotionally and libidinally freighted, is further complicated by the impossible and contradictory demands and attacks of a transphobic culture and politics that operates effectively as a pincer movement. It is not for an easy life that one decides to change one’s sexed body, or one’s sexed embodiment.
For many who style themselves as ‘trans-critical’, however, being trans is either a delusion or a pretence. “The physical transformations created by hormones and surgery,” Sheila Jeffreys, asserts in Gender Hurts, “do not change the biological sex of the persons upon whom they are visited.” Jeffreys makes no attempt to argue for this point, but in the past she would not have been expected to, as the state would have agreed with it on the grounds that ‘natural’ sex was the only legitimate basis for heterosexual marriage. Jacqueline Rose recounts the case of April Ashley at length for the London Review of Books, in which the judge made exactly this distinction, claiming that Ashley’s vagina was simply not big enough to accommodate a penis. Anne Fausto-Sterling, in Sexing The Body, describes a similar case in which a marriage between a man and “a woman born without a vagina” was annulled on the grounds that the artificial vagina was only two inches deep, and sex of this kind was a “quasi-natural connexion” to reduce a man to. It is notable that this unexpected convergence of heterosexist, patriarchal reaction with the politics of a militant lesbian feminist takes place around the ‘naturalness’ of the body.
If one takes the sexed body as ‘read’ — that is, as it was ‘read’ by medical personnel at birth — and if one deems that reading as incapable of being altered by symbolic and surgical intervention, that makes any claim to have ‘changed sex’ incoherent. What is variously called the ‘trans narrative,’ or ‘transgenderism,’ is then treated as an ideology which either validates a new mutation of patriarchy, giving men a new way in which to occupy women’s spaces, or gives credence to the delusions of unhappy people. Worse, for trans-exclusionary feminists, the claim depends on gender essentialism. Jeffreys asserts, in what constitutes a typical line of attack, that “transgenderism depends for its very existence on the idea that there is an ‘essence’ of gender, a psychology of pattern and behaviour, which is suited to persons with particular bodies and identities.” Julie Bindel makes an almost identical claim: “Transsexualism, by its nature, promotes the idea that it is ‘natural’ for boys to play with guns and girls to play with Barbie dolls. The idea that gender roles are biologically determined rather than socially constructed is the antithesis of feminism.”
This claim, since it is typical, requires some elaboration. It is not simply that trans people sometimes claim that there is an ‘essence’ of gender, or that their claims may imply it, it is that there is no way the phenomenon can be taken seriously, can exist in any real sense, unless we believe in gender essentialism. To be transgender is to claim a stable gender identity at variance with the sex one was assigned at birth, and gender identity “is founded upon stereotypes of gender” which “are profoundly harmful to women”. As Jeffreys goes on to explain in a pamphlet on Transgender Activism, they construct “a conservative fantasy of what women should be. They are inventing an essence of womanhood which is deeply insulting and restrictive”. It is “deeply reactionary,” a “way of preventing the disruption and elimination of gender roles”. The logic of this thought is transparent: femininity is and can only be oppressive – gender hurts – and anyone who actively embraces it is engaged in a harmful and unjust appropriation of female experience. In a notorious radio interview on Australian radio in 2014, Jeffreys added:
“Transgenderism for men is about the right to imitate and pretend to be members of the subordinate class even though they are members of – biologically and were brought up in – the superior class. That was problematic for the black and white minstrels. It’s problematic generally when a group of people claim to be another group of subordinate people.”
This idea, that male-to-female transitioning might be a form of blackface, was nefariously smuggled wholesale into the Rachel Dolezal dramas, during which there was quite a lot of tendentious argument about whether, if people could be transgendered, they could not also be trans-racial. This was even suggested by contrarian supporters of Dolezal’s case, like Adolph Reed, who delighted in what he regarded as the spectacle of ‘identity politics’ being forked on its own incoherent premises. It is not clear whether this has any practical as opposed to polemical relevance. Dolezal did not claim to be ‘trans-racial’; she claimed to be black, and still does. Thus far, while there is more to be said about the politics of racial passing, whatever desire there may exist among some white people to ‘pass’ as black has not translated into a widespread demand or attempt to transition to having a body that is on-goingly read as black. Practices such as ‘blacking up’ or ‘acting black’ tend to appear, where they do, as parodies or appropriations of an essentialised blackness, within the field of whiteness. That is, the ‘perversity’ of the display is intended to reproduce and emphasise the whiteness of the person who blacks up. It is a commonplace of American culture that, however many white people may want to emulate the cultural product of black people, or in some contexts pretend to be black, no one wants to be treated as black for very long. Racial passing has almost invariably moved in the opposite direction, and Rachel Dolezal’s case is arresting for being a major exception.
If anything, the Dolezal case underlines that the existence of significant numbers of people, globally, who aim to live as a sex/ gender other than that assigned at birth is something that calls for some consideration of the subjective processes that are implicated in that desire. Particularly given that, at least according to some statistics, the majority of those who wish to do so, using Jeffreys’ terms, move from being in the dominant to the subordinate sex- caste. Not for larks or vanity, not as dress-up or cosmetic surgery, but as a matter of existential urgency. And one is struck, when reading ‘trans critical’ discourse, just how cursory such consideration is. For Jeffreys, trans people are simply “uncomfortable with traditional gender roles,” and in some cases “homosexual men who don’t feel they can be homosexual in the bodies of men”. Their problem is not their relationship to their sexed bodies so much as their lack of a “feminist analysis that gender itself is the problem”. Thus, they “seek to act out their discomfort through adopting elements of the opposite gender stereotype”. From this point of view, all that is required is some good old-fashioned “consciousness-raising”.
And if, having heard the “analysis,” based as it is upon the presumption that they are delusional (perhaps victims of “false consciousness”), trans men and women reject it? They, not the analysis, are at fault. Others, like New Statesman writer Sarah Ditum, lay great stress on the possibility that “mental illness” (autism) or sexual fetishism (autogynephilia) explains trans behaviour. And while the former may be pitied, the latter is scoldingly reproved for turning women’s oppression into a “sexual plaything,” as if there was ever a sexual plaything under patriarchy that was not imbricated with oppression. The analysis of trans people from this perspective almost always slips insidiously into an elaborate form of public shaming. Its explicit demand is that gender should be abolished, but its punitive moralism says to trans people: ‘get back in the closet, and don’t you dare step out of your assigned gender’.
One reason that Jeffreys and her allies are always far more energetic in prosecuting and preemptively pathologising trans people than in understanding their subject, is that they regard the existence of trans people as posing a problem for the theory upon which they have based their politics and strategy of women’s liberation. Their ‘materialism’ is one in which the body is essentialised and naturalised, sexual difference being reducible to certain chromosomal, hormonal, and reproductive distinctions. Above all, the reproductive body is the basis, and the exclusive basis, for sexist oppression: you are sex oppressed only if your capacity to give birth is used to subordinate you. It is also the basis for resistance: only the reproductive body can be admitted to the political community of women in struggle against patriarchy: “Respect is due to women as members of a sex caste that have survived subordination,” says Jeffreys, “and deserve to be addressed with honour. Men who transgender cannot occupy such a position.” That, as we have seen, “men who transgender” are swiftly subject to oppression either as the women they identify as and are read as, or as gender freaks deserving of punishment, does not enter this picture. Hence, the tactical willingness to police gendered demarcations, to police other women’s bodies (extending also to hostility to sex workers, and opposition to new reproductive technologies and surrogacy in some cases), and to revile the emulation of femininity.
Such narrow-mindedness is not only depressing; it may actually be depressed. The austere forbiddingness of such politics depends upon shutting down certain possibilities, because it can only regard them as threatening. Theory always has a tendency, if its oppositional currents are not cultivated, to become a resistance to new and troubling knowledge — dogma, in other words.
If the starting point of trans experience is often pain, the sense of something very wrong – which you must then be prepared to medicalise as ‘gender dysphoria’ in order to have it recognised – it would be a mistake to leave it there.
If trans is an object of desire, an answer to something that doesn’t fit, it is also something that brings a certain pleasure and comfort. And if, in Freudian terms, it can involve ‘drive-sacrifice’ – the loss of sexual pleasure upon transitioning – the sensual comfort of somatically embodying the desired sex is the yield. Of course, trans people, precisely because they have chosen to cross the gender threshold, are often more acutely aware than others of just how much, as Jeffreys insists, ‘gender hurts’. It doesn’t hurt everyone just the same, but the particular ways in which it hurts when you cannot live in the gender you’ve been assigned are evidently not negligible.
The pleasures of gender are harder to theorise. If the sexist asks, “why would anyone want to be a woman?”, the TERF asks, “who but a man, spared the oppression that goes with it, could fetishise femininity?” That anyone might, given the choice, want to be read as a woman; that anyone might even want to be a stereotypically feminine woman, and even consider femininity an exciting and superior alternative to drab and nondescript masculinity; or that one might just, say as a married man, want to slip blissfully into one’s spouse’s underwear in the dark, is seemingly only comprehensible as internalised oppression if gender only hurts. If the entirety of gender is its role as a support for the binary sex system which oppresses women, and if all of the exhaustive protocols of possible femininities are simply naturalised stereotypes deployed for the purpose of sustaining a sex class system in which women are both oppressed and exploited, then it is hard to see why interested in resisting sexism should want to identify with that.
And indeed, many trans women prefer not to identify with a conventional form of femininity, even despite the risk of violence and social ostracism. There is a drive, represented by trans writers like Kate Bornstein and by those who identify as genderqueer, to break up existing gender stereotypes and produce new mosaics, to de-naturalise stereotyped gendered behaviour, detach it from its ability to legitimise oppressive power and broaden the range of possible ways of living. Genderqueer and non-binary discourses push in this direction, resulting in what Susan Stryker calls a “heteroglossic outpouring of gender positions from which to speak”. Even for those who do ‘pass’ in conventional gendered terms, as Juliet Jacques argues, this is usually secondary to the primary desire have a different relationship to one’s body.
Nonetheless, this still leaves us with the question. Take gender stereotypes, break them up, change your relationship to your body (through surgical or hormonal adjustment where necessary), and arrive at a strange and wonderful new gendered position. The question is, why that and not something else? What is so good about that? What is so good about that for you? We all seem to be able to take pleasure in ways of being in our body: dressing, comporting ourselves, walking, inflecting our voice in a particular way. We take for granted that the body and its embodiments are libidinally invested, that we enjoy the sexed body — even if we often think that we somehow shouldn’t, or at least not in the ways that we do. But exactly what that means when we talk about being cis or trans, is as yet unclear.
Being trans has to do with the body, and its embodiments. But the lonely hour of the organism never arrives. There is never a moment when the sexed organism is left alone by discourse, regulation and political power. Even before it is born, the body has been assigned not only a name (the signifier par excellence of parental desire), but a nationality, a race, a social class, and likely a sex as well. So much of how it will be treated and allowed to develop has already been written. It will be socialised into a certain way of nourishing itself, regulating its sexuality, ritualising its hygiene and labouring to reproduce itself. In the name of materialism, a great deal of causality is ascribed to socialisation. And yet socialisation is neither a straightforward nor homogenous process, and somehow many subjects manage to constitute themselves against their socialisation — among them, trans people who have been raised by parents committed to them retaining their birth sex and living out a gendered position deemed appropriate to that sex.
At least the salience of socialisation foregrounds something important about bodies. They are never reducible to their organic constitution, because their organic constitution is never separable from their symbolic constitution. One thinks of how bodies are read. It is common for transsexuals to hate parts of their body, their penis or their breasts, that are read as male or female. It is beyond language and yet, to say that one feels “unhappy about having a male body and being read as male,” is to say that language is there, and that the organism is among other things overwritten with signifiers to be read. It is to advert to the always-already present role of what Lacanians would call the ‘symbolic order’ in constituting the body, and to the fact that as much as sex is about the organism it is also a location from which to speak. Adam Phillips, in a commentary on Larkin’s poem, This Be The Verse, observes that we may be fucked up but we are also fucked into existence — “there is no other way”. But we might also say that as bodies we are written into existence, which implies a very different role for the phallus. We can only be ‘read’ in a particular way, as we are at birth, if we have already been written.
One of the byproducts of the early development of sex change technologies, beginning with Christine Jorgensen’s transition in the 1950s, is that the symbolic, written part of sex has been hived off into the separate concept of gender. This move was later consecrated by the sexologist and innovator of sex reassignment surgery, John Money, but it was also taken up by many second wave feminists. Money’s theory, deriving from work with sexually ambiguous patients (i.e. those with ovaries and a penis, or testes and a vagina, or two X-chromosomes and a scrotum) offered a developmental, layered account of sex which could take account of how the characteristics associated with these layers may not concord with one another. Even before birth, there are five layers: chromosomal sex, indifferent foetal sex, differentiated foetal gonad sex, foetal hormone sex and foetal internal reproductive sex. From birth, of course, the infant is quickly assigned to one sex or other based on genital dimorphism — a practice which, as the biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling describes, results in overly hasty and pitiless surgical ‘corrections’ to intersex infants, to ensure that they can be fitted into the sex binary. They are subsequently socialised into the gender associated with that sex identification. Money also identified something he called ‘brain dimorphism’ in his developmental narrative, a subject of raging contention, but this is separate in his conception from gender identity.
Splitting sex in that way, into a layered biological development on the one hand and a social and symbolic process on the other, as Patricia Gherovici suggests, seemingly allows us to define an area of choice, and the possible democratization of sex. If a part of sex is social and subjective, having to do with identity, then it can be brought under our control. It also allows feminist critique to differentiate between the incidental facts of endowment, and the social structures which produce such wildly different life-chances for the sexes. But to reify that theoretical division, or assume that it refers to a real separation, is a serious error. It is a political mistake because it is derivative of a mind-body dichotomy that, as the feminist theorist Elizabeth Grosz has written, in Volatile Bodies, is implicated in the perpetuation of sexist power. The ontological assumption of the body’s essentially given, passive and reproductive-but-unproductive status, is all too readily put to work in rationalising the control and coercion of women’s bodies. It is a reifying error, because it reduces the body to the organism, taking no account of the ways in which bodies change historically as they are reproduced, nourished, disciplined and technologically augmented. “Why should,” Donna Haraway asks, “our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other things encapsulated by skin?” Our bodies come to include not just noses, knees and pinky toes, but also clothes, rings and mobile phones. And it is a perceptual error because it disavows that the bodies we are referring to are speaking beings, and as such always-already “captured and tortured by language” as Lacan put it.
It may be an unwillingness to reduce matter to biology, materialism to physicalism, and the body to the organism, that leads the lesbian feminist Monique Wittig to re-describe the category of sex as a question not of “being” but of “relations,” men and women existing only in relation to one another. She too centres reproduction in the constitution of the sexes, but as a political imperative, as the foundation of heterosexual society, something which should be abolished. There is a risk here of another kind of reductionism, in which the social and political aspect of sex difference is emphasised so strongly that everything else disappears, as if the organism imposed no limits on its social construction. We can speak of the organic and symbolic as different modalities of matter related to one another ‘merographically’. The concept of the ‘merographic’ relationship was coined by the anthropologist Marilyn Strathern to account for the way in which ideas may be coupled through both similarity and difference.* Thus, ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ are described as being partially co-mingled, and yet each is also related to a whole other order of things (physical properties, human interactions) which distinguishes them.
This co-mingling, with difference, is a useful way to think of the relationship between the organic and symbolic aspects of bodily constitution. As Fausto-Sterling puts it in Sexing the Body, “there are hormones, genes, prostates, uteri, and other body parts and physiologies that we use to differentiate male from female, that become part of the ground from which varieties of sexual experience and desire emerge” But “every time we try to return to the body as something that exists prior to socialization, prior to discourse about male and female,” we encounter the sedimentation of organic matter with discourse and political power.
It is surprising, given how much energy transphobic writers put into accusing ‘transgenderism’ of gender essentialism, that is of believing that gender consists of innate qualities that derive from biology, just how many trans women — and of course, the attack is aimed almost exclusively at trans women — don’t have the quintessential experience of being “a woman trapped in a man’s body”, have never “known” they were women but only find it out after a sustained research project. And then, having adopted a trans position, are profoundly ambivalent about ‘passing’ as women. Trans writer and biologist Julia Serano, author of Whipping Girl, rejects the tendency to distort “my desire to be female into a quest for feminine pursuits”. Juliet Jacques, the author of Trans, describes the gender binary as both a physical and socio-economic problem for trans people, and as such one that they’re inclined to be highly critical of. “I’d get threats of physical violence if I didn’t code as female … But I never liked the idea of passing, I was always very ambivalent about it.” Soren Goard, a trans activist and socialist, likewise stresses the role of violence as a disciplinary factor. Indeed the accusation of upholding gender norms “leaves trans people with the conundrum. Do you attempt to pass and then face this ire? Or do you not pass and then face violence?”
Not all trans people see it this way, and indeed ‘passing’ for many involves becoming more royalist than the King when it comes to gender. The psychoanalyst Patricia Gherovici, in Please Choose Your Gender, describes the research of a trans man named Mitch who, in an effort to fit in with a male gender role, discovers from observation that women more often finish their sentences with a question intonation, “men do not look at each other when speaking and often interrupt others,” “women smile at other women” while men never smile at anyone they don’t know, and women “keep their handbags clutched to their midriffs” while men carry their belongings away from their bodies. “The prescriptive list,” Gherovici observes, “is seemingly endless.”
There is an element of what Kate Bornstein dubs ‘genderation’ in this, in that those adopting a trans position in recent decades have been more likely to stress the on-goingly constructed nature of gender, and to distance themselves from hard gender identifications. If the primary need to disaffiliate from the sex assigned at birth often takes the form of an identification with the socially and historically constructed, gendered characteristics of the opposite sex, it doesn’t have to be this way. In this sense, the insistent use of the -ism in a lot of trans-exclusionary discourse (transgenderism, transsexualism) has a point. The trans solution, whatever it is a solution to, involves a form of artifice, or art, tout court. But the need to which this -ism is an answer, is thinly and at worst contemptuously treated by trans-exclusionary writers. It is as if, between the false oppositions of a purely given ‘biological sex’ and a purely imposed and socialised ‘gender,’ there is a level of analysis that is missing.
It is perhaps for this reason that Serano coins the concept of “gender dissonance” to account for the non-coincidence of “physical sex” and what she calls “subconscious sex”. What is noticeable about Serano’s account is that it has little to do with wanting to play with girls’ toys, or to be ‘passive’ as girls are presumed to be, or to play games that centre on domesticity, like ‘house’: a “subconscious sex” identification does not automatically conduce to a particular gender performance. Nor does she immediately convince herself that she is a woman trapped in a man’s body. Beginning at the level of experience, she describes an ongoing self-examination, an attempt to find out what is wrong, what this enigmatic desire is:
“I experienced numerous manifestations of my female subconscious sex: I had dreams in which adults would tell me I was a girl; I would draw pictures of little boys with needles going into their penises, imagining that the medicine in the syringe would make that organ disappear; I had an unexplainable feeling that I was doing something wrong every time I walked into the boys’ restroom at school; and whenever our class split into groups of boys and girls, I always had a sneaking suspicion that at any moment someone might tap me on the shoulder and say, “Hey, what are you doing here? You’re not a boy.””
Speculatively, Serano tries to explain this experience in relation to brain hard-wiring, not out of a hard and fast scientific conviction but because but because it seems to explain better than any other current theory “why the thoughts I have had of being female always felt vague and ever-present, like they were an unconscious knowing that always seemed to defy conscious reality”. There is, of course, another idiom which centres ‘unconscious knowing’: psychoanalysis.
Psychoanalysis, being — as Juliet Mitchell argued — a study of the basic, cellular unit of capitalist civilisation, the nuclear family, is a potential ally of liberatory theory. Serano, however, is sceptical of the claims of psychoanalysis. Every trans person has excellent reason to be cynical about mental health professionals who come pre-armed with elaborate theories about them. To get certification for gender dysphoria at the moment requires a lengthy process of jumping through various hoops to conform to the current theory of what a trans person is: their behaviour and dress should be stereotypically that of the other sex, they should claim to have always felt like the other sex since infancy, they should claim to be repulsed by their own genitalia and attracted to members of the sex they have been affiliated to since birth. Any one or all of these may faithfully represent the trans person seeking certification, but the fact that one must evince all of them as truths to be taken seriously as a trans person — the fact, in other words, that someone else’s crude check-box theory must take precedence over your life experience — is a good reason to distrust this field. And it must be frankly admitted that psychoanalysis has been just as complicit in the pathologisation of trans experience as the psychiatric and medical professions. A recent volume on Transvestism, Transsexualism in the Psychoanalytic Dimension, deploying a Winnicottian perspective, took for granted the “pathological and diversified nature of transvestism and transsexualism,” linking “transsexualism” to “the absence of symbolic thought,” a “narcissistic malady,” and so on. In the Lacanian register, things ought to be better, if only because the later Lacan’s writing on sexuation is radically de-naturalising and anti-normative in thrust.
Lacan’s infamous, paradoxical formulation that ‘Woman does not exist’, asserts that there is no essence of femininity, no psychic formula that guarantees what a woman is. On the one hand, this might be seen to pose a problem for male-to-female transsexuals if indeed they do depend on a kind of gender essentialism. On the other hand, it poses a problem for everyone else too. Darian Leader, writing in a Lacanian register, describes the depression of a twelve year old girl after experiencing her first period. The depressive effect could be ascribed to a kind of anticlimax in that, for all the coming-of-age rituals around menstruation, the beaming assurances that “you are becoming a woman,” life “didn’t suddenly become different,” and the “biological change signalled in menstruation didn’t provide an answer to the question ‘What is it to be a woman?’” That is to say, Lacanians are deeply skeptical of the idea that the answers are to be found in the natural, the given. In a way, all sex identities are fetishised, all ‘gender’ a misunderstanding, a smoothing of doubt. The non-coincidence, the failure of things to add up that characterises trans experience, is to an extent universal, even if most people tend not to acknowledge this.
In truth, however, there has been a marked tendency among Lacanians to reduce trans experience to psychosis. If Freud insisted that sexual difference is the bedrock beyond which analysis could not go, Lacanians have typically argued that since sexual difference is the definitional starting point from which the symbolic order is produced, the denial of sexual difference results in the foreclosure of the symbolic that is definitional of psychosis. The assumption that trans people universally ‘deny the difference’ is, however, not borne out in either every day or clinical experience.
Catherine Millot’s seminal Horsexe: Essay on Transsexuality is an example of what can happen when a perceptive psychoanalytic writer attempts to apply this particular dogma to an unavailing body of evidence. Containing fecund lines of inquiry, it is also filled with patronising and othering language (not-entirely-sceptical borrowings from Janice G Raymond pepper the introduction), as well as being littered with absurd generalisations that are later contradicted. For while Millot admits that psychosis is “far from being the general rule with transsexuals,” she also attempts to sustain the position that at least male-to-female transsexuals are, as a rule, psychotic. In line with this hypothesis, Millot asserts that male-to-female transsexuals “boast a monolithic sexual identity … All male transsexuals have an idea, and even a definition, of womanhood”. A monolithic sexual identity, free of contradiction, is one which only psychotics really enjoy. This is because the psychotic delusion is not really a ‘belief’. If I experience my body as female in a hallucinatory sense, it is not a belief I am entertaining, susceptible to doubt. It is experienced as a brute, even invasive, fact. Neurotics doubt their sexuality (and everything else); only psychotics are certain. Further, Millot is contending, the scientific-technical discourses which offer a ‘remedy’ to this psychotic delusion are reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes.
Of course, it would be surprising if some psychotics were not transsexuals, particularly given that ‘feminisation’ is a common feature of psychosis. There are well known cases like Schreber, whose case was discussed by Freud, or ‘Henri,’ one of Lacan’s early patients, in which a desire to be recognised as the other sex has been imbricated with psychotic delusion. This, of course, does not mean that their desire should not be taken seriously. Likewise, not everyone who is a trans woman has a revolutionary critique of sex, and many will theorise their experience in terms of the social classifications that are dominant in the society which they wish to recognise them as female. Yet toward the end of the text, Millot admits that “the monolithic nature of their position appears mythical … their sexual identity is far from free of contradictions”. This is to say, psychotic ‘certainty’ does not capture their experience, and Millot does not have a coherent theory.
Nonetheless, it is worth exploring Millot’s argument in further detail, in order to see exactly what it is her argument fails to do. Horsexe assumes that the desire for surgery is the nec plus ultra of trans-ness: “The transsexual does not exist without the surgeon or the endocrinologist”. This is to claim that the important part of trans experience is not what Millot describes as the “inner conviction” of being the other sex (which, in the end, turns out to be “mythical”) but the “demand vis-à-vis the other” for a rectification of the body (which is characteristic of only a minority of trans people). The argument that this is a demand arising from psychotic delusion does not necessarily have to be pathologising in the usual sense. According to Lacanians, psychosis is one of three broad mental structures — neurosis, psychosis and perversion — neither of which are particularly easy to live with for the subject, all of which are structured around a symptom, and all of which can involve profound suffering. Yet, of course, psychoanalysis has to have some idea of what it is to have a pleasurable, ‘healthy’ life which the suffering subject can find through the ‘talking cure,’ and in some writing there is a tendency to regard the neurotic structure as being closest to it.
The differences between these structures are in fundamental ways about the body. For Lacanians, the body is constituted through three registers of subjective experience: the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real. The imaginary dimension is implicated in what Lacan described as ‘the Mirror Stage,’ in which the infant first identifies with an image of her body in the mirror and invests it with libido. The body image is important in part because it places clear limits on the body, giving it a shape, an interior and exterior. It can then be compared to other bodies, and found wanting. The symbolic dimension is linked to another kind of limit on the body, that of castration. In Freud’s view, sexual difference is defined by castration — boys are haunted by the possibility of losing their penis if they misbehave, whereas girls are haunted by having already lost it. For Lacan, on the other hand, the sense in which the child is ‘castrated’ is that she has to give up believing that she can satisfy her mother — that is, that she can ‘be’ the phallus. The child is separated from the mother by the intervening father’s words (although they don’t have to come from an actual father). Instead of an illusory ‘oneness’ with the mother, she is offered a sexed place in language from which to speak. If boys and girls adjust differently to their castration, it has less to do with anatomical differences than with the fact that in patriarchal systems, men are assumed to be the bearers of a symbolic phallus, a signifier of power and generativity, whereas women are not. Thus, sexual difference is established not in relation to the penis, but to a phallic signifier. If one is read as female, one is assumed not have to this phallus; if one is read as male, one is assumed not to be without it. The irony, of course, is that no one has it. It is a fetishisation of the power and generativity it supposedly contains. The difference between the sexes is not about having it, so much as the distribution of not having it. The Real, as that part of subjective experience which escapes capture by images or articulation by the Symbolic, is not what we typically call ‘reality,’ and nor is it coextensive with the organism. Much of what we call biological is in fact captured in the imaginary and symbolised. But insofar as there is need, drive, and satisfaction (jouissance) that escapes language, and yet is necessary for language and social reality to exist, that is the Real.
In ‘normal’ neurotic development, these three registers are knotted together by the ‘paternal metaphor’ – that is, by the words of the father intervening between mother and child, and laying down the law. This paternal metaphor, because it prohibits, instates repression and initiates the formation of an unconscious. But it also functions as an anchor holding the entire network of signifiers in place, preventing the endless slippage of meaning. And it insures the relative coherence of the body as a ‘real,’ ‘symbolic’ and ‘imaginary’ object. Where the paternal metaphor does not work for some reason, sexual difference is denied, the symbolic order is foreclosed and there is an un-knotting of the registers of experience: this is psychosis. Millot’s contention is thus that “the transsexual symptom” is an attempt to remedy psychosis by replacing the paternal metaphor with a new identification with an alternative signifier (‘The Woman’ – an ideal image of what a woman should be) to knot the imaginary and symbolic registers. Meanwhile, it is hoped that surgical correction will bring the ‘Real’ of the body into line.
But it is in the ‘Real’ that Millot finds sexual difference to be an “insuperable” barrier, however much it is sustained by the dualisms of the “symbolic order”. Kate Bornstein misinterprets this to mean that gender is “real and natural,” and thus qualifies Millot’s argument as an example of “gender terrorism”. But when Millot rhetorically inquires whether transsexuality can change the nature of the Real, it can be taken to mean: is it possible, through surgical and endocrinological intervention, to bring some of this opaque knot of jouissance into line with a new Imaginary and Symbolic body? To say that it is an “insuperable” barrier seems to imply not, and yet surely one of the ends of psychoanalysis is a reconfiguration of the Real.
Millot is not outright opposed to surgical intervention, noting its beneficial effects for many. Her essay, however, can be taken as in part an attempt to resist the closure that a then emerging scientific- technological discourse arguably imposed. Acknowledging, in spite of her theory, that trans experience cannot be reduced to psychosis, she points to the unconscious desire, the profound existential questions, that often lie behind the demand for a different body. What if the scientific-technological answer to these questions is not only brutally inadequate, but in fact a renunciation of the desire driving them? What if the depressive affects that many experience after transitioning are caused by the fact that nothing has really changed? What if the rush to a seeming solution only compounds misery? This is the kernel of truth in the TERF contention that those offering transitions are part of the industrial logic of the cosmetic surgery industry. A woman has a nameless dissatisfaction with her body; an advertisement carefully pitched to tap into that dissatisfaction offers liposuction as a solution. If she analyses the dissatisfaction, she might come to think of it as internalised oppression, or in a different idiom relate it to a tacit parental demand that she quietly and without too much fuss ‘disappear’. Analysis, that is, can open up a new seam of political or subjective truth. If she turns her question into a demand for liposuction, the question is closed – and the only guaranteed beneficiary in that process is the company offering the service. Undoubtedly, as trans people gain civil rights and combat stigma, companies offering services to trans people will be a lot less shy of their purpose. Drugs companies that sell hormones overwhelmingly for trans use will stop hiding the fact. No doubt they will also find ways to manufacture the demand for what they’re selling.
Millot strives, as a Lacanian, to avoid occupying a position of mastery, or imposing normativity. Yet, arguably, any theory seeking to determine in advance the meaning of a demand for a new body, to assign it to a single logic, is inherently susceptible to normalising pressures. And if a theory of the suffering subject claims to know in advance what the subject needs or must avoid, it is hard to see how it doesn’t normalise, and in the same way become a resistance to analysis. When someone comes to Millot seeking a sex change operation because she experiences her body as a lie, the answer — “that would just exchange one lie for another!” — can be seen as a classic example of that form of resistance in analysis known as ‘countertransference’. The statement is opaque enough in its logic that it doesn’t entirely depend on suggestion for its effect, as many therapeutic models do. But how does Millot know, before anything has been discussed, that sex change would substitute one lie for another? Because she has the theory, she ‘knows’ that the transsexual confuses the male sex organ with the phallic signifier, and that the real task is neither to acquire nor ablate the penis, but to find a new relationship to the phallus. Theory allows her to ‘know,’ that is, the difference between the truth and a lie. The same theory, however, warns of the irrevocable split between (subjective) truth, and that which can be expressed in knowledge, in the chain of signifiers. The fantasy of mastery is that this split can be overcome, and that with this knowledge, the master can protect us. In reality, truth is always half-said (“mi-dire”).
Horsexe is covertly a discourse of mastery, with Lacan positioned as the master; the theory has become a resistance. Or rather, the ‘manifest content’ of the text is a discourse of mastery, repressing the gap between truth and knowledge. The ‘latent content,’ one might say, is organised around this gap, exposing it in the disjunctions between its ornate, theoretical architecture and grand historical sweep, and its modest, qualified, slightly baffled conclusions. This, I would submit, is an effect of Millot’s conflicting desires. She wishes to replace the spurious expertise of science, as the emerging authority on transsexuality, with the subversive knowledge of the unconscious, a knowledge which resists mastery and expertise. But because of her a priori judgements about transsexuality, because she wants to cure transsexuals (which is not exactly the same thing as erasing them), this is instead harnessed to a desire to replace the authority of the surgeon with that of the psychoanalyst.
From a certain perspective, most people confuse the penis with the phallus. It is, pace Millot, the ‘normal’ error, the Oedipal one that sustains capitalist patriarchy. So that, even it were true that all transsexuals were psychotic, they would actually be unique in not making that common error, which is an effect of the symbolic order.
This is just another way of saying that all sex identity is a misunderstanding, or a fetishisation. If I think I’m a man just because I have a penis, I’m missing the point. (To say that men stay men and women stay women regardless of sex reassignment surgery, is also to miss the point for the same reason.) As a neurotic, of course, my point-missing has a point. There will always be a gap between what I am and what I think I am supposed to be. My performance of masculinity will always fall somewhat short. And I will always wonder about those unexpected feminine identifications, the ways in which I place myself in a feminine position vis-a-vis someone else. Nonetheless, the fetish smothers doubt. If I have the symbolic phallus, or if I am treated as though I am not without it, I can reason that this is because I have a penis. This allows me to think I have a secure place at the man’s table.
As the central metaphor of psychoanalysis, the Oedipus complex has been both unsettling and restorative, both a subversive description of what people are like and tacitly a prescription for maintaining order. It raises the spectre of psychic bisexuality, incestuous desire and aggression, only to put it back in its box. At some point in the Oedipal drama, it is expected, the child will surrender both the mother and psychic bisexuality, and accept a sexed position. Boys are destined to be men, girls are destined for men. This is, of course, a story of obedience; of sex as a protection racket. We obey, where we do, both because of what we are threatened with and because of what we are promised. In place of what we are prohibited, be it incest or masturbation, we are offered the prospect of achievements, recognition, a place in the world, and perhaps one day our own sexual partners. Instead of masturbation, qualifications; instead of incest, writing (or palimpsest).
But what if we don’t obey? What if we are simply unimpressed by the threats and the promises? What if we decline the terms of the choice? Our dependent nature means that obedience is, up to a certain point, in our interests: and beyond a certain point it becomes second nature. For the most part, we accept the prohibitions that are given to us, and form the identifications that are offered to us as admirable. But if obedience becomes second nature, it is in part because first nature, as it were, is constantly in covert rebellion against our obedient selves — ‘first nature’ being, in this way, the first thought, the first desire, that occurs to us before the internal censor represses it into the unconscious. As such, even obedience is never as straightforward as it seems. Socialisation might make certain demands of us, but it could only programme us if we weren’t desiring, curious beings. We have the option of adopting a subjective position with respect to the demands of the Other, and the position we ‘officially’ adopt may be contradicted by an unconscious position which has nothing to do with hormones or reproductive equipment.
That enigmatic, “unconscious knowing,” that “vague and ever- present” sense of being female described by Serano, is the obverse of a “conscious reality” of “physical maleness”. If the rebellions of the unconscious manifest themselves in slips, gaffes, bungled actions, and jokes, they can also appear in compulsive thoughts, dreams and unexpected and mysterious impulses. Serano’s unconscious desire comes through in childhood fantasies and daydreaming doodles. She would, for instance, draw pictures of “little boys with needles going into their penises, imagining that the medicine in the syringe would make the organ disappear”. It is as if the cock, in being penetrated by this medicinal phallus, shows itself to have been a cunt all along. As if Serano’s dream was saying, “my penis disappears because it was already an illusion; because in spite of having a penis I have never had the phallus”. Later, this symbolic identification with phallic lack comes together with an imaginary identification with the female body, in what Serano characterises as a revelatory moment. Feeling suddenly compelled to take a set of white lacy curtains and wrap them around her body, she sees herself in the mirror: “I looked like a girl. I stared at my reflection for over an hour, stunned. It felt like an epiphany because, for some unexplainable reason, seeing myself as a girl made absolutely perfect sense to me.”
Not everyone has a similar, epiphanic ‘aha’ moment, in which all the questions suddenly appear to make sense. Jacques’ story is one of gradual discovery, of theories continually revised and rejected, of a piecing together in a way that allows a certain retrospective sense to be made of things – even if it is partially contingent. Goard likewise argues that, to an extent, the trans solution to her questions is constructed. She is particularly sceptical of once- upon-a-time narratives: the attempt to assemble, from the bric- a-brac of growing up, evidence of the trans person one would eventually become. The temptation to explain what one is, based on what one has been, is human, but is arguably too convenient to be trusted. Meanwhile, if Serano’s epiphany allows her to argue that perhaps there is a deep subjective truth in her being female, even to the extent of it being somehow biologically hard-wired, she still doesn’t claim to know this, much less to have ‘known all along’. Things that make sense in retrospect, because an elegant solution has been found, were still once troubling questions. And Serano deploys a wide knowledge of the biological and cultural aspects of sex to stress the extent to which her particular solution, of taking up a place in a binary sex system, is also culturally determined. For many trans people, then, being trans is a negotiated solution with an acknowledged element of the socially conditioned, the aleatory, and the improvised. It is a particular deployment of raw materials that could, in other circumstances, be deployed in other ways. It is an art, a form of writing.
Where does this leave us? In a way, exactly where we started: trans is an answer for which we don’t know the question. Indeed, it is not even clear that the question is always the same, or even that the anguish it brings with it is always of the same type or magnitude. To give it a label, ‘gender dysphoria,’ and assign to it a list of attributes, as we have seen, proves nothing. If trans people have to tick those boxes to be recognised, that is what they will do. The diagnostic classification becomes self-affirming, simply because of the power it has to grant people access to treatments they urgently want — want, in both senses of the word.
In recent years, in an attempt to push back against the default tendency to pathologise trans, several authors — Bracha Ettinger, Patricia Gherovici and Oren Gozlan — have tried to develop a psychoanalytic idiom in which the question can at least be articulated. To achieve this, it was necessary to move beyond Oedipus. In his later years, Lacan claimed that the Oedipus Complex was “Freud’s dream” — that is, a creative work of displacement and metaphor, both conveying and concealing a desire on the part of the author. The desire in question, on Freud’s part, was to obscure the fact that fathers are mortal, and have limits, by displacing blame for the father’s death onto the incestuous child. In other words, Freud wanted not to be faced with the father’s castration. The fact that fathers always fail, because mastery fails, means of course that the father can no longer guarantee the truth of anything — not of our sex, not even of our symptom.
We go to the doctor because we have a pain — the pain is our symptom. In psychoanalysis, the pain is more likely to be a sign that the symptom has broken down. One common way of describing a symptom in psychoanalysis is to say that it is an attempted self-cure. It is a particular way of enjoying life in spite of some traumatic knowledge that we can’t confront, a way of structuring our drive-satisfaction, or jouissance, so that we don’t have to confront it. But because it is organised around unassimilable trauma, it also becomes a permanent commemoration of that trauma. Like commemoration, it is profoundly superstitious. Like commemoration, it is ritualised; it repeats. The symptom is one’s habits, the unquestioned infrastructure of one’s daily conduct, the axioms by which one lives — and which, to the observer, is what makes you recognisably you. It is, in Lacan’s idiom, “the etcetera of the subject”. Through the symptom, we enjoy. That is why it is so hard to give up on it, why the last thing we want is to be divested of it.
Just as some habits only become visible and peculiar by being transplanted into a new cultural context, so certain types of symptom only become definable in relation to another. If Millot spoke so urgently of “the transsexual symptom,” and if psychoanalysis is so desperately seeking the answers to “the transsexual symptom,” it is because trans experience — driven up the agenda by technological and social change — has brought to light something pervasive about human experience. The fetishistic nature of sex identity, the non-coincidence of the different registers of the sexed body, the precarious way in which we knot them together, the doubts we simultaneously repress and let slip about our sex. One could call it, for the sake of being provocative, “the cissexual symptom”.
When we no longer believe in the truth of our symptom, instead recognising it as our own creative product, as something we can assume responsibility for, it becomes possible to reconfigure it. An art of the symptom becomes possible, a creative rebirthing and reconfiguration. Or, to put it another way, a rewriting. Jacqueline Rose comments that “transsexual people are brilliant at telling their stories,” and perhaps this is in part because transitioning is in its essence a rewriting of one’s life story. Or, several rewritings, several drafts, sometimes told for the benefit of gatekeepers, sometimes for parents, sometimes for friends, and sometimes for a public. One becomes effectively a palimpsest. The body remains, that is to say, overwritten with signifiers, having been written into existence. But the subject has found a way to assume responsibility for the writing — if necessary, even through surgical intervention. It is not a somatic Shangri-La, not a dream of limitless plasticity. The work of creation takes place within very real limits particular to the transitioning subject; but then, creativity always needs limits.
This is a story, not so much of disobedience as of non-obedience. The master is not rebelled against, so much as not believed in. Those who have set themselves up as potential masters of one’s life story are no longer invested with that power. They are a material force to contend with, but otherwise a matter of supreme indifference. Not every decision taken on the road to being trans has to be assumed to be well-taken. Not everyone who considers transitioning would be wise to go through with it, at least without analysing the desire. Not every trans story has to have a happy-ever-after (and, when you think about it, no story worth reading does). Many stories go on needing to be re-written; the first edit is never our own, but it doesn’t have to be the final edit either, because there need never be a final edit. And at the heart of this experience there remains a mystery, something indeed as yet “beyond language”. Trans is not a straightforward answer to a well-defined question.
But in the sense that to be trans is to be an artist of the self, assuming a trans position means among other things that one has assumed creative control. This is one meaning of the term, ‘trans liberation’.
*This essay is written in part as an answer to left-wing transphobia, which is overwhelmingly concerned with and directed at trans women. For most of this essay, when i address trans experience, i will refer specifically to those who were assigned the male sex at birth and came to feel that they belonged to the female sex. There would be a political logic to including tranvestism under this canopy. Juliet Jacques suggests a popular front approach to gender struggles because ‘we are all beaten up by the same people’ – and transphobic spite is often directed at tranvestites. However, subjectively it is something different insofar as male-to-female transexuals feel themselves to be women, whereas male transvestites feel themselves to be men.
[†] All quoted matter is from interview material unless otherwise stated. Numerous people helped with this piece, and i would particularly like to thank Laurie Penny, Juliet Jacques and Søren Goard for their generous assistance.
Richard Seymour is a writer, broadcaster and socialist, raised in Northern Ireland and currently based in London. He is the author of The Liberal Defence of Murder (2008), Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens (2012), and Against Austerity (2014). A contributing editor of Salvage, he also writes for The Guardian, the London Review of Books, and many other publications. He currently presents a programme, ‘Media Review’, for TeleSur, and has previously appeared on BBC, Al Jazeera and C-Span. He has recently completed a PhD at the London School of Economics.