Wednesday, January 6, 2016

On Biomedical Technologies of Gender

I have a bad habit of accumulating interesting journal articles on my computer and only reading them months or years later. Such was the case with a 2012 Journal of Gay and Lesbian Mental Health article called "Transgender Transitions: Sex/Gender Binaries in the Digital Age" by one Kay Siebler. The title is clumsy, but the convergence of transgender studies with internet studies is a research interest of mine, so the other day I finally got around to reading it.

I was disappointed. Siebler's argument boils down to a rehashing of that boring, ignorant claim that people who medically transition are reinforcing gender binaries, and if we were ~real true queers~ we wouldn't get hormones or surgeries (and we certainly wouldn't talk to each other about them). This idea is weirdly pervasive in queer circles, and it's predicated on fallacies.

What I find most troubling about this claim isn't its oversimplification of the relationship between individual's actions and the system of enforced gender binaries; nor its naive valorization of nonbinary identities as always inherently better and more liberatory than binary identities; nor even the way it holds trans people to a different standard than cis people. It's the way that, even as it purports to dismantle the gender binary, it naturalizes the sex binary and the cis body. For Siebler, and for many others who think similarly, binary sex assignment at birth is self-evident; the cis body and its gender are natural, a blank slate on which hormones and surgeries constitute unnatural intervention (if not mutilation). These are pernicious misconceptions: the cis body as given, unmarked, its sex preexisting and floating above the socio-material discourses in which its life is lived. These are the (platonic) ideals clung to by the "don't call me cis" crowd (with, and I always promise myself I'm not going to compare gender and race but I always end up doing it anyway, its irresistible echoes of "I'm not white, I'm Irish").

Look: all genders are biopolitical fictions. It's just that some are more strictly regulated and suppressed than others. The body is never a blank slate and genders are never natural. There's no ontological difference between a trans person taking hormones and the assignation of an infant to a socio-material category based on its genitalia, as discerned by the medical gaze at birth or before. Both are biomedical interventions. Both are leaps into the rapid-running river of the sex/gender system, and both require intense struggle to keep your head above the suffocating flow of discourse. The only real difference is that the birth assignment is socially and institutionally supported.

Ironically, I find a parallel frustration in the work of someone who is both acutely cognizant of the fictitious nature of cis genders and extremely in favor of doing whatever the hell you want with synthetic hormones: Paul Preciado. Preciado's Foucauldian analysis in Testo Junkie is so brilliant, such a lucid and convincing account of the operations of pharmacopornographic biopower, that it's kind of hilarious how thuddingly flat his conclusions fall. All that dazzling description of the global assemblages of sex and gender, and then all he can offer is a revolution through drag king workshops. It's like a parody of everything he has devoted the preceding 350 pages to dismantling. Perhaps I am jaded by too much queer theory of the "my preferred gender/sexual practices just so happen to be the most politically subversive" variety, but I find it hard to get excited about any revolution that entails occupying the postures of toxic masculinity, whatever the intent behind so doing. Bragging about your dick(s) and mistreating your girlfriend as revolutionary praxis? Count me out, bro.

For Preciado, biomedical technologies of gender are inherently revolutionary. For Siebers, they are inherently reactionary. Both of them are ignoring the ways we interact with existing gendered power structures.

Biomedical technologies of gender are systems in which we all partake, trans or cis, knowingly or otherwise. The cis/trans axis of power requires that trans people fight harder for their genders, prove and justify and earn them in ways cis people aren't required to do. The male/female axis of power denigrates women in material and discursive ways. Trans women's oppression at the intersection of these axes is multiplied as transmisogyny. This is, like, feminism 101. It's incredible how quickly it gets forgotten by people who want to make sweeping claims about trans folks.

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