Whipping Girl: Interview with trans feminist Julia Serano
- Published: 16 March 2010
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Cath Davies talks to writer, spoken word performer and activist Julia Serano, author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity.
In the introduction to your book, Whipping Girl, you claim that 'as a transsexual woman, I would have to say that most of the anti-trans sentiment that I have had to deal with is probably better described as misogyny' and that 'we are ridiculed and dismissed not merely because we transgress binary gender norms, but rather because we choose to be women rather than men'. Is this something you have experienced within lesbian or queer women's' communities? And how do you think the experiences of trans women differ to those of trans men?
I think that trans women and trans men have a lot in common, in that we both have the experience of having others react negatively to our cross-gender identification and gender non-conformity as children and adults, of having lived as both women and men at different points in our lives, of physically transitioning, and having other people view our femaleness or maleness as “fake” simply because we were not born into that sex.
Where our experiences differ is in the direction of our transitions. People often talk about how trans men are invisible in the media and in public perception. I think a lot of this stems from the fact that maleness and masculinity are respected in our society.
While people may view trans men as “fake” men, they usually don’t sensationalize or ridicule their desire to be male or masculine. Trans women, on the other hand, are targeted not only because we are trans, but because of our femaleness and femininity.
In other words, we don’t merely face transphobia, we face trans-misogyny. For example, the media regularly hyper-sexualizes us, portraying us as sex workers or as sexual deceivers.
The media also hyper-feminizes us, by focusing heavily on our appearances and clothing and such. Virtually all jokes that target trans people focus on “men” who wear dresses or who want their “penises cut off.”
All of these things are steeped in the idea that femaleness and femininity are inferior to maleness and masculinity.
I find that many lesbian and queer women tend to share the very same trans-misogynistic attitudes that proliferate in the straight mainstream.
Their criticism of trans women often centers on mocking our presumed feminine attributes or on the insistence that we parody women by wearing high heels and make-up and so on. Of course, not all trans women dress or act this way, but that doesn’t seem to phase them. Femininity is just a scapegoat, a way of undermining us.
Can you explain the terms trans-objectification and trans-mystification?
Well, objectification refers to reducing a person to their body parts rather than viewing them as a whole person. When I come out to people as transsexual, many times they’ll blatantly objectify me—they’ll ask me extremely personal questions about my genitals or what medical procedures I might have had.
They’ll scan my body for signs of my former maleness, whether it be in the size of my hands, the tone of my voice, and so on. That’s what trans-objectification refers to. I experience it as being similar to the way men fixate on women’s body parts or undress us with their eyes.
And it serves the same purpose too. Both trans-objectification and the objectification women allow people to fetishize, sexualize, demonize or dismiss us without guilt or remorse.
Trans-mystification refers to the way people sensationalize or become overly fascinated by transsexuality. Like trans-objectification, it’s about treating people as though they are an object of fascination rather than a real person dealing with real circumstances.
Sometimes when I come out to people they’ll dawdle over me as if I just impressed them with a magic trick. Transsexuality may seem mysterious or sensational to many non-trans people, but for those of us who experience it first hand, it is simply our lives, something we have to deal with on a daily basis, something that we are marginalized for.
That marginalization is erased when people focus solely on the fact that we are “fascinating” or “exotic.”
I was at a girls-only play party some years ago in the US, and was asked to show the 'F' on my ID to 'prove that I was a woman'. Oddly, there were several trans men in attendance at this event. It does seem bewildering to me that so many 'lesbian' and 'women only' spaces are more readily accepting of trans men than trans women. What do you think may be the reason for this? And further, how do you think such prejudice may be combated?
I totally agree with you. In both the straight mainstream, as well as within gay and lesbian communities, it seems that masculinity is invariably praised while femininity remains suspect.
In my own experience as a trans dyke, I find that the anti-trans woman sentiment that often exists in queer women’s spaces is driven way more by dismissive attitudes toward femininity than it is by the fact that we used to be male.
Sure, there is anti-male sentiment. But the fact that trans men, who have physically transitioned to male and live in the world as men, tend to be more accepted in queer women’s spaces than trans women, who identify and live as women, shows that the issue is driven more by anti-femininity than anti-maleness.
One thing that must happen to combat this prejudice is to call out anti-feminine sentiment—I think that femme and trans dykes both have a stake in this. But there is another thing that needs to happen.
We need to have a long overdue conversation about how the presence of trans men in queer women’s spaces often invisibilizes, and sometimes even antagonizes, trans women’s acceptance in those very same spaces.
In order to justify their presence in women’s spaces, some trans men will claim that they are not “really” men because they’re trans, or they weren’t socialized male, or they don’t have a penis.
Of course, if trans men aren’t “really” men, then by the same logic, trans women must not “really” be women. Such claims are not only anti-trans, but they place trans women in a no win situation.
Trans guys get to have their cake and eat it to, so to speak, by being men in the male-centered mainstream and then being “not-men” in queer women’s spaces.
In contrast, trans women are treated as second-class citizens both in the male-centered mainstream and within queer women’s communities.
As well as being a writer and trans activist, you are a biologist and argue that 'certain aspects of femininity (as well as masculinity) are natural and can both precede socialization and supersede biological sex.' This will be quite a confronting notion to many people, and confusing to many others. What is the range of reactions you have received?
Well, many feminist-minded people tend to have a knee-jerk negative reaction to the idea that some aspects of femininity or masculinity may be natural.
Feminists have spent so much effort challenging biological determinism—which is important—but sometimes it gets taken to far, to the point where simply evoking biology in any way will get you labeled as a gender essentialist.
The thing is though, biology itself is not essentialist. It’s a source of profound diversity and variation.
People fall all over the map with regards to gender expression: some people are feminine, some masculine, and many of us express some combination of both.
The fact that there are young masculine girl and feminine boy children shows that gender expression is not sex specific.
And the fact that such atypical gender expression often persists well into adulthood despite a lifetime of the socialization to the contrary indicates that it’s not all about socialization.
Sure, some aspects of femininity and masculinity are socially constructed and enforced, but that doesn’t mean that they are entirely artificial or that we simply choose how we want to act.
I find that a lot of people are initially skeptical at first about this idea. But those who have read the book—especially the chapter “Putting the Feminine Back into Feminism”—come to understand that I am not taking a gender essentialist position.
Once they realize this, they see how the idea that femininity is artificial or merely a performance plays right into the hands of masculine-centrism. I know that this has resonated with a lot of feminine-identified feminists for this very reason.
What are your thoughts on the idea that transition is reinforcing biological gender essentialism?
I debunk this argument in the book because it comes up all of the time in feminist and queer circles.
First off, the idea that transsexuals reinforce gender essentialism, or heterosexism or the gender binary has virtually no basis in trans people’s actual lives.
While some trans people appear more gender-conforming or “straight” post-transition, many of us transition despite the fact that we appear more gender-variant or are perceived as queer in our identified sex.
We don’t transition in order to uphold the gender system, but rather because we have a deep, profound, inexplicable, subconscious self-understanding regarding what sex we should be.
Many non-trans feminists and queers assume that transsexuality is some kind of “false consciousness” or that there must be some kind of ulterior motive that drives us to transition.
This of course is the same strategy that homophobic people rely on when they insist that lesbian and gay folks are merely looking for an alternative lifestyle or just haven’t met the right person yet.
It is arrogant for someone to assume that a phenomenon like same-sex attraction or cross-gender identification doesn’t exist simply because they personally haven’t experienced it themselves.
Once we recognize that trans people simply exist, then it becomes obvious that the whole reinforcing gender essentialism argument is a double standard in that it is only ever applied to transsexuals.
Nobody ever says “my mom reinforces the gender binary” or “my nextdoor neighbor essentializes gender.” If a non-trans woman is attracted to men or becomes pregnant, is she reinforcing biological essentialism?
What if she does something stereotypically feminine, for example, if she cries or goes shopping for shoes, do people accuse her of reinforcing the binary? Of course not. So why then would people single out transsexuals for these very same things?
The fact is that the argument that transsexuals reinforce gender essentialism is not a real argument. It is a hoax. It is cut from the same cloth as the arguments that gays and lesbians are merely looking for an alternative lifestyle, or that bisexuals are merely sex-crazed or sexually confused.
These are all merely ways to undermine other people’s identities, nothing more.
How do you assess the relationships between trans-women and feminism? How is feminism experienced by transwomen, and how might transwomen enable feminists to think about gender in new ways?
Many trans women gravitate toward feminism post-transition. Prior to my transition I was regularly outspoken against gender discrimination and fighting gender norms.
But upon transitioning, I suddenly started experiencing misogyny in ways that I had not before, both because people were now perceiving and treating me as female, and also because so much of the transphobia I faced was clearly rooted in misogyny.
Unfortunately, up until very recently, feminism hasn’t been particularly welcoming of trans women.
Of course, there are some segments of the feminist community that are vehemently anti-trans. But even aside from that, a lot of feminist activism and rhetoric is geared specifically toward non-trans women’s experiences.
Much of it centers on women being able to do anything men can, and on empowering women’s bodies and biology, which is important and necessary, but it doesn’t resonate as readily with trans women because our socializations and bodies differ from that norm.
And the whole unilateral feminist notion that men are the oppressors and women are the oppressed just seems so overly simplistic coming from a trans perspective. Male privilege is very real, but it is not the only gender privilege that exists.
I think what trans women can offer feminism is a fuller, more holistic perspective on sexism than what currently exists.
Part of this comes from our having lived in the world as both women and men at different points in our lives. Also, I think trans women can challenge the notion that femininity is entirely artificial or merely a trap to hold women down.
I can understand why it might seem that way for many women who were coerced as children into a femininity that did not feel right for them. But trans women often have the reciprocal experience of naturally gravitating toward feminine expression despite being socialized to be masculine.
Because of this experience, we recognize how certain aspects of femininity can be empowering for those who gravitate toward it on their own accord. We recognize the importance of critiquing anti-feminine sentiment both in the culture at large as well as within feminism.
Who do you see as the primary audience for your book?
Well, I tried to write the book so that anyone could pick it up regardless of their previous knowledge of trans or feminist issues.
Having said that, there were a few groups of people who I thought would be most interested in what I have to say.
Because the book is a transsexual woman’s perspective sexism, it resonates a lot with trans audiences, and especially trans women.
But I also really wanted to reach feminist and queer audiences and to engage them in a number of trans- and gender-related discussions that are long overdue or which have not yet been articulated.
Cath Davies is a gentlefag and scholar.