Posted by Kevin A. Straight
If you read any news at all you have probably noticed the recent deluge of stories about trans-people. The tabloids (and now the mainstream media) are obsessed with Bruce Jenner’s sex change. MTF actress Laverne Cox, seems to be everywhere at once. Leelah Alcorn’s suicide, and subsequent time-delayed tumbler messages, have outraged millions of readers and drawn attention to the role of gender issues in many teen suicides. The New York Times, always a good barometer of the left-of-middle zeitgeist, has been dropping stories at a rate of about one a week profiling various photogenic young people with non-binary sexual identities. Brad and Angelina, always on trend, have discovered that they have a transgendered child. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Tambor turns in a stellar performance as a transitioning MTF on Amazon’s visually stunning and generally well written show Transparent. The producers of Glee, seemingly in an attempt to prop up their ratings, have announced that one of their regular characters is going to transition gender in the show’s final season.
Why is the media suddenly flooded with trans-related content? Are we witnessing the results some sort of transsexual conspiracy? No. Not really. Overall, any coverage that portrays transgender individuals as human beings and makes the population aware of gender issues is a good thing. It is far healthier than the way transsexuals have previously been portrayed on TV: as clowns, freaks, and sexual deviants. It helps undue some of the damage caused by pornography which objectifies transsexuals, portraying them as little more than mindless, pliable sex toys. But gender rights activists like Kate Bornstein, Riki Wilchins, and many others have been trying to raise awareness of transsexual issues in the media for decades without ever achieving an effect of this magnitude. This trend is obviously coming from another quarter; there is no way it can be attributed solely to activism and identity politics.
I believe that we are about to witness another major shift of battle lines in a culture war which has been fought for over 200 years.
Gender rights first emerged as an issue in the context of women’s rights. However women’s rights was not initially seen as a separate issues. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century the civil rights movement attempted to secure human, civil, and political rights for women, blacks, and everyone else who wasn’t an affluent white male. Most of the important nineteenth century abolitionists were also feminists; nearly all of the important feminists were abolitionists. This changed dramatically right after the civil war, when the 39th Congress passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Suddenly, it looked as if black Americans had a real chance of securing the full rights of citizens. The leadership of the women’s rights movement put pressure on black leaders and Radical Republican congressmen to hold out for equal rights for women as well. Unfortunately, it was believed that bringing up the question of women’s rights would be politically unpalatable and kill the entire project.
Prior to that time Frederick Douglas, the most influential and charismatic black activist of the period had been a close ally of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the acknowledged leaders of the feminist movement. They broke when Douglas told them that he planned to support the civil war amendments because blacks needed civil rights more than women did. From that point on the black rights movement remained separated from the women’s rights movement. Slowly and painfully, the ruling powers decided to accept black men as full members of the society, but dug in and continued to fight against female equality.
American women finally received the right to vote fifty-five years later, the first big victory in their campaign. Now, after many more battles, women are also–mostly–considered equal citizens of the polity.
The gender wars were far from over, though. Homosexuals and transsexuals, long an oppressed minority in America, began to assert themselves in 1969 with the Stonewall Riots. This movement too began as a coalition: homosexuals, cross-dressers, sex workers, and transsexuals. Again, after many battles, the forces of freedom pushed back the reactionary battle lines. By the 1990’s society had–grudgingly–agreed to accept the membership of homosexuals as long as they were “normal” in every other way. It had now become acceptable for a person to be gay or lesbian as long as they still fell within society’s binary conception of what a “man” or “woman” was. The establishment dug in again and “mainstream” homosexuals began doing everything they could to distance themselves from transsexuals, cross-dressers and queers who might spoil their hard-won acceptance.
The Stonewall Riots [Student Project]
Now the reactionary establishment is preparing to execute another strategic withdrawal. The “moral majority” is going to come to the decision, articulated by the mass media, that it is acceptable to be a transsexual as long an individual transitions all the way. The male-female binary must be maintained, and they will go on fighting to protect it. “Real” transsexuals, having anticipated this moment, have already begun cutting themselves loose from cross dressers, gender queers, and anyone else who doesn’t fit the correct stereotype.
But gender isn’t binary. It isn’t even a two-dimensional spectrum that runs from male to female, but a complex construct of many variables. Many people fall somewhere in the middle. The most likely result of any either-or system as a prerequisite of social acceptance is to pressure transgender people, especially young people, into seeking a full transition, dooming them to an expensive, painful, dangerous process that they might not need or want. I am completely in favor of people being able to live in their own gender, but it is ridiculous to only offer two extreme choices and tell them they have to choose.
Society will be forced to accept this too, in time. But rest assured, there will be some other group which is marginalized and made to fight for their rights. The culture war continues, exhausting our civilization and leaving us so focused on identity politics that we are unable to deal with the real issues of our time. Honestly, why are we obsessing over transgender people instead of global warming or overpopulation or a top-heavy system of wealth distribution that is a revolution waiting to happen? I wish we could just make peace in the culture war and move on to the real problems.
Bornstein, K. (1994). Gender Outlaw: on Men, Women, and the Rest of Us. New York, NY: Routledge.
Epps, G. (2006). Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.
Wilchins, R. A. (1997). Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books.