Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Toilet Debate - a historical deconstruction

It is funny how the issue of toilets rears its ugly head from time to time, especially when cisgender males are concerned, and especially with reference to transgender women using the ladies. This seems to be something which worries them overwhelmingly, yet it appears to be much less of an issue for cisgender women. Speculating as to the reason for this one could potentially think of;

  • envy, these guys would like to get into the ladies themselves.
  • Carrie Paechter's concept of the masculine gender being policed more strictly (both going in and going out) than the feminine one.
  • The old-fashioned sexist idea that these guys have to be protective of "their" women against people they perceive as men.
However I believe the reason is much more simple than that and is related to power. If you take a walk through St Ann's Square in Manchester there is an interesting historical relic which gives us a clue. A very old, early Victorian, public toilet. It is now disused and they have put an electric substation down there or something like that. But notice how I said 'toilet' in the singular. There was only one of them. For men. You can see this repeated if you go into some very old pubs like The Ship in Wardour Street London; there was originally only space for one toilet and they have had to make space for two giving the back of the pub a rather cramped feel.

During much of the Victorian period public toilets existed only for men and there was a reason for this; to control women. Public toilets allow people to stay out, away from their home, for long periods. This meant that men were able to travel, to work, to do business, to engage in political and civil activity in ways which women were not. Women were effectively only able to do the shopping and go home again, they could not spend long periods away from the home. Indeed not having women's public conveniences became so 'normal' that women attending Ladies Day at Royal Ascot would not wear any underwear because they would need to 'go' in a corner of a field behind a hedge.

This represents the situation today for transgender people; not being able to use a public toilet represents a restriction on one's civil liberties. The fact that men are the ones most concerned about this issue strongly suggests that it is a power issue rather than an issue of public safety for women; men, most of whom are termed 'gender defenders' by Kate Bornstein, would like to see transgender people's restrictions on taking part in civil and public life restricted by subtle means since they cannot argue for restrictions on transgender people's civil rights in other ways.

Toilets may seem a relatively trivial issue, but it is an important issue of civil liberty and human rights; the right to take part in civil and economic life depends on being able to spend long periods of time away from home during the day which in turn depends on easy access to public conveniences in the same way that cisgender people have.

Despite transgender people's run-ins with some feminists in the past, I believe trans people have a lot to learn from feminism, in particular that pretty much anything gendered has a power element to it as well and that male hegemony wants to force its way into the most unlikely places, including, in this case, the ladies.

Friday, 27 August 2010

What causes trans people?

Silly question I hear you say. "Sexual intercourse between your mum and your dad of course!" comes the reply. OK but why are some people trans and some not? There have been all sorts of theories including something in our childhood, too much estrogen/testosterone in your mum's tummy, environmental pollution etc...

There are even scientists beavering away trying to solve such problems; coming up with ideas such as androgen receptors, brain stems, even DNA. The trouble is, what is known as "publication bias"; the fact that if a study produces no link between something and being trans then it is unlikely to be published, makes the small number of studies which are published (and usually subesquently discredited) seem less noteworthy.

However, there is a much more plausible and simpler explanation for the existence of transgender people, and it comes form the work of the Professor of Biology at Stanford University, Joan Rougharden. Her detailed analysis of nature and the way most of the animal kingdom and almost all of the plant life on this planet do not fit the pattern of fixed, stable sex categories or gender identities suggests that our view of the world is not what it ought to be. In fact Roughgarden is seriously critical of biolgists from Darwin onwards, for the way they have presented social, sexual and gendered life within the animal kingdom. It is not by chance that animal social and gendered behaviour, if you look at Origin of Species, resembles that of middle-class southern England in the 1850s. The animal kingdom has been viewed through the lens of existing social expectations of gendered behaviour by biologists and zoologists for at least 150 years. It is this bias which has done such harm to our perceptions of ourselves as a species. The bigoted, the narrow-minded and the outright vicious have used biology to argue that cisgendered heterosexual monogamy is natural and as such should be considered 'normal' and anyone whose life does not fit this must be at best deviant, at worst criminal or evil.

The fact that these justifications for bigotry and hatred were based on a fiction is only now beginning to come out. Strangely, whenever a natural history programme, or school textbook wants to talk about our nearest relatives on the evolutionary chain, they refer to chimpanzees. The social life of chimpanzees is conveniently close to that which the rich and powerful in capitalist society would like our society to be. They are fiercely competitive to the point of being violent towards each other, very territorial, heterosexual and selfish, the perfect image for human societies such as the laissez-faire, 'liberal' unregulated capitalist ones would like to project as natural, and without alternative.

The problem is that, of course, chimpanzees are not solely our closest relatives, they are jointly closest along with the bonobos. You don't hear so much about bonobos do you? There's a reason for that: Bonobos live in sharing, cooperative, collaborative and peaceful communities, and not only that, they enjoy intense and varied sex lives, all of them being bisexual. This image does not suit the controllers of our society and as such we hear very little of them.

Similarly we hear very little about animals whose gender structures that differ from ours. The image of the coy female attracted to the biggest and most aggressive alpha male is a myth not borne out by reality. In some species there are multiple genders - such as one type of salmon which has three male genders and two female genders, and in some species the female in not coy she is aggressive, and in some she isn't interested in having a strong, handsome male as the father of her offspring, she wants a male who will help her care for them. In some species the male and female enjoy a family life lasting only 10 minutes, spending the rest of the time either in single-sex company or alone. The cis-het nuclear family suddenly doesn't appear so natural any more.

So what does all this have to do with gender identity? Well the answer is that what humans perceive as the binary gender system, has nothing to do with what is natural. The binary gender system is a social construct, like nationality or class. In fact humanity is naturally a very diverse species. In fact it would be bizzarre to assume that we were not much more diverse in every way compared to all other species on this Earth, after all, we posess larger brains than any other animal with the possible exception of dolphins, who of course do not posess the ability to communicate or create and use technology in the same way we do. As such it would be unreasonable to expect humans not to be extremely diverse, given that the animal kingdom is very diverse, especially from the point of view of gender identity and expression.

So, from my point of view, transgender people are not to be explained by theories of social depravation as young children, or by pre-natal occurences or hormone imbalences or other physical damage. We are transgender because being transgender is a natural element of humanity. There is no explanation for our existence which is not the same as any explanation for the existence of any other human being. We exist because the human race naturally has transgender people in it. There is nothing unnatural about being transgender, trans people, in that respect, are no different from anyone else.

What is unnatural however, is the gender binary system which most societies live by and which most of us expect to fit into, and which expects all 6 billion people on this planet to fit neatly into its two categories. It is this which is unnatural not us. It is time people woke up and realised this. Transgender is natural. Binary gender is not.