In order to elaborate on Butler’s understanding of gender, we include Serano who points to the fact that there is a problem within feminism both when it comes to not understanding one’s cis-privileges and the devaluation of femininity. She thinks trans women are an important example of that. I line with Butler, she thinks (social) gender is constructed by the way others perceive and interpret one’s identity:
I can modify my own gender all I want, but it won’t change the fact that other people will continue to compulsively assign a gender to me and to view me through the distorted lenses of cissexual and heterosexual assumption
(Serano 2016: 193)
Trans* describes a variety of gender identities that are extremely different, and yet share one, simple common denominator: they don’t fit the traditional conception of a cisgender woman or man.
In the preface of the Peer Reviewed Journal Kvinder, Køn & Forskning (Eng: Women, Gender & Research which) ) from 2011, Danish gender scientists Tobias Raun, Maja Bissenbakker Frederiksen and Michael Nebeling Petersen describe how trans* studies are increasingly making up more and more of gender research. The reason for this is, that trans* studies contribute with critical and theoretical ideas on gender, and because the identity category ‘transgender’ historically, theoretically, and socially make up a figure that illustrate naturalized assumptions of gender.
Trans* studies and trans* theory arise out of lived experiences of stigmatizing and invisibility in society as well as within a psycho-medicinal health system, in gender research, and in the social general public (Raun et al. 2011: 3).
More poststructural theoreticians and queer theoreticians have been part of creating a focus on trans* people (and ‘drags’) as perfect examples of the idea of gender identity as a performance (as seen with Butler). As seen here, trans* people are not just read negatively as the embodiment of a binary gender system, but also positively (ibid.: 6).
Raun (et al.) point out, that some of these readings by trans* theoreticians have been criticized for their lack of theorizing ‘transgenderism’ as an actual embodiment and actually lived subject category that is subjected to both juridical and social discrimination. It has thereby become increasingly important to many trans* theoreticians to focus on ”(…) det komplekse forhold mellem kropslige erfaringer og sociale/institutionelle diskursiveringer af subjektivitet og køn” (Raun et al.: 6). Our translation: the complex relation between bodily and social/institutionally discursivations of subjectivity and gender.
Breaking with trans* as a ‘non-identity’
What is most worrisome, however, is how the diagnosis [GID: Gender Identity Disorder] [Transkønnethed] works as its own social pressure, causing distress (…) to be called unreal, and to have that call, as it were, institutionalized as a form of differential treatment, is to become the other against which the human is made. It is the inhuman, the beyond human, the less human, the border that secures the human in nits ostensible reality. To be called a copy, to be called unreal, is thus one way in which one can be oppressed
(Butler 2004: 99, 217)
Graduate in sociology and educator at Sexuality, Gender- & Trans* Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Sonny Nordmarken, emphasises this in his article “Becoming Ever More Monstrous: Feeling Transgender In-Betweenness”, in which he writes that trans* identities are seen as non-existing as opposed to cisgendered people:
(…) they are assumed to “actually” be something else—something that can be known by viewing their bodies. Biological essentialism thus discredits trans identity. Trans people must therefore continually re-assert their identities. As a trans person, I occupy a particularly between kind of betweenness
(Nordmarken 2014: 40)
Nordmarken elaborates the issue concerning moving from this ‘in-betweenness’ to a more recognisable gender identity, when society at large still refuse to recognize this ‘move’, which is exactly the reason why trans* people remain obscure:
As a transgender being, my gendered shifting moves me into more betweenness. I am queerly between: I occupy multiple positions at once, and different positions at different positions at different times, depending on how people read me – in regard to age and ability as well as gender. I am socially subjugated as transgender, even as I am beginning to experience in a new way what White male privilege is
(Nordmarken 2014: 38)
Because of this form of ‘non-identity’, both due to the ‘diagnosing’ from society and a lack of representation in general, Raun (et al.) emphasizes that there is a need for a trans* vocabulary.
This is further underlined by Butler, who explains that in order to be allowed to start a transition, trans* people must learn how to present themselves within a discourse they have no influence over. This means that they must give up their freedom by sacrificing the right to use language properly. Put differently, they must give up a form of freedom in order to achieve another freedom by subjecting themselves to: (…) a discourse that denies the language you might want to use to describe who you are, how you get here, and what you want from this life” (Butler 2004: 91).
Raun (et al.) points out that trans* is a determination that covers a person who crosses the border of what is understood as a ‘normal’, binary gender since they move across the gender categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’ (Raun et al. 2011: 9). Furthermore, he wants to break with the misunderstanding that they are born in ‘the wrong body’:
En transkvinde er en person, der er udpeget som dreng ved fødslen, men som identificerer sig som og præsenterer sig som kvinde. En transmand er en person, der er udpeget som pige, men identificerer sig og præsenterer sig som mand
(Raun et al. 2011: 9)
[Our translation] A trans woman is a person, who has been labeled ‘boy’ at birth, but identifies as and presents herself as a woman. A trans man is a person, who has been labeled‘girl’ at birth but identify as and presents himself as a man (ibid.)
This can be conceptualised by using Seranos term ‘subconscious sex’: the biological gender one is born with that does not depend on genitals. She explains this further by pointing to studies of the brain (brain-hardwiring hypothesis), the area BSTc, where the structure of trans women’s look like ‘understandable’ women’s. This means that everybody is born with an inherent understanding in the brain of what biological gender one’s body should be. In regard to this, she underlines how everybody is born with a subconscious gender, but it is only a few that has to deal with this, since most people are in line with their assigned gender (cisgendered people), as opposed to trans* people (Serano 2016: 81).
Serano also talks about the importance of focusing on ‘gender entitlement’: “(…) the arrogant conviction that one’s own beliefs, perceptions, and assumptions regarding gender and sexuality are more valid than those of other people” (Serano 2016: 89), which is necessary to be aware of in order to create a stronger sense of unity within the queer community so that those who identify within the binary gender system (as either ‘man’ or ‘woman’) are not excluded from this community (ibid.: 359).
In order for those who suffer under this limited understanding of gender and how this category should control the way one is in the world to become free, it is important to be aware of cis-privileges and give equal status to all forms of gender identification. By understanding the gender category it is also possible to gain a better understanding of what women liberation means, since it is not just about understanding biological gender, but also social gender.