Transsexuality is not an “Issue”: Children’s Books and Symbolic Reality
January 30, 2009
There seems to be a comparatively large number of books written around the subject of gay and lesbian relationships but we could find nothing about transsexuality. It occurs that this is an area which perhaps should be given more attention by authors and publishers, given that it’s not uncommon for trans children to know at quite an early age that they have a degree of gender dissonance.
OK, I say, this is a good point, but I think it’s missing something–the analogy is flawed. But! My POV was (kind of) expressed in a cited post:
There was a time I naively assumed that I wouldn’t have to worry about sexism in my child’s books until at least story books, maybe not even until chapter books. Surely board books, written to start reading to infants so young they only understand the rhythm and rhyme of the words, would be immune!
That naivete lasted until maybe five minutes after the Boychick got his first book.
The truth is even board books, even modern board books, are rife with sexism, heterosexism, racism, and of course, what’s a good word, cisgenderism? (One can’t even call it transphobia, for it’s more the complete lack of acknowledgment that gender isn’t always obvious, simple, and binary. Transphobia might be a step up.)
I disagree with the terminology question–refusal to incorporate the fact of our existence in one’s actions in the world is one of the most deadly forms of transphobia:
When these corporations do justify their denial of basic medical care to trans people, one rationalization comes up repeatedly: the U.S. Federal Food and Drug Administration has not given approval for the use of any medications for transgender body modification. The Federal government does not supervise, regulate, approve or acknowledge the use of hormones to alter the gendered characteristics of one’s body. The FDA has never acknowledged, I believe, that trans people even exist.
When I buy my finasteride and delestrogen, they come to me, as most medications do, with small neatly-folded inserts outlining their proper use and potential side-effects. These texts are carefully regulated by the FDA. Nowhere in those long texts am I mentioned. They never discuss their use by transgender people, never acknowledge their potentially transformative effects when used with certain bodies, never even acknowledge that anyone under 50 would ever have a reason to take them. Similarly, I am never reflected in the advertisements for these drugs. Their extensive websites or occasional magazine ads have no trace of trans bodies. In the vast, proliferating world of consumer capitalism, trans people just don’t constitute a market niche when it comes to drugs.
I am invisible to my health insurance company, invisible to the FDA, and invisible to the pharmaceutical industries. This invisibility is how these institutions express their transphobia and the hatred of trans bodies. We are not seen. For some, this lack of institutional acknowledgement has dire consequences. Already excluded from the wage economy, many poor trans women in Philadelphia turn to sex work to pay for their hormones. Poverty, police abuse and HIV have taken a severe toll on the lives of trans women in the city. As trans people modifying our bodies, we are using these corporation’s drugs towards unapproved and unacknowledged ends: the gendered rebuilding of our bodies. We pay the bill, and we live with the consequences. For me, choosing to take hormones is the best decision I’ve ever made.
Michelle O’Brien, “Tracing This Body: Transsexuality, Pharmaceuticals, and Capitalism”
But regardless, I’m right there with Arwyn when I say that transphobia is integrated into these books, that it’s part of our culture down to the way infants are taught language, and that that foundationalism (ha!) is true of sexism, racism, homophobia, etc etc., to the point that explicit/bigoted transphobia can even be helpful, in that it acknowledges our potential existence, and only denies that existence a place in our understanding of reality through violence.
When Helen writes I can remember very clearly the day when, aged five, I realised that “something wasn’t right with my body”. But I had neither the language nor the resources to say or do anything about it, I think she elides an even more crucial point–that by the age of five, she had been successfully indoctrinated into believing that her identification as/desire to be/discomfort with ‘not being’ a girl was an affront to symbolic reality. It’s not. Without a preexisting identification of cissexuality with Reality, that wrongness, that lack-of-fit, doesn’t exist. The only thing separating pre-pubescent trans kids from living their genders is the demand that they not do so–not hormones, not height, not anything, physical differences between cis boys and cis girls at that age are practically nil.
Before trans kids can think of themselves as “wrong,” they have to be introduced to the idea that their genders are inauthentic–the separation of cis and trans has to occur, and then the possibility of transsexuality has to be, in psychoanalytic jargon, foreclosed–the incompatible idea is rejected as if it never existed. The very potential for transsexuality would make our theoretical “ground” when writing about sex and anatomy nonexistant. Western culture depends on transphobia to create meaning in the world. I’m not saying that the whole thing would come crumbling down without transphobia, but that concepts we can’t even think currently would have to come in to replace it in order for the whole thing to *not* come crumbling down. Refuting cissexuality-as-reality, cissexuality-as-default is tantamount to refuting positivism/the scientific method/the idea that Truth is or can be objective–which is part of why we have to search for a “cause”–because we need something to help us acknowledge being trans as valid while maintaining that there isn’t anything wholly interior/subjective/qualitative about personhood. I hope you see the problem.
I hope I’m not reading too much Spivak to make sense anymore.
So here I come back to transsexuality-as-an-issue:
Targetting that particular demographic makes good sense, but I wonder if perhaps children themselves should be given access to the tools they need to help them in their own self-identification. To paraphrase Ruth, “I am thinking of something the five-year old Helen could have read that might have helped… but also something that the five-year old Helen would have actually been likely to read rather than have been stuck in a ’specialist’ bookshop like News from Nowhere whilst Helen read Thomas the Tank and the Hobbit”.
On one hand, I want to praise the move toward “trans kids need access to this info, it’s normal, and it’s something five year olds need to have info about and yes are actually capable of understanding.” But on the other hand, if we approach the world from a perspective that cissexuality isn’t “natural,” if we come from the perspective that all gender & sex are self-determination, then there isn’t a book about dealing with being trans–in the background of every children’s book has to be an assumption that kids are uncovering gender for themselves and making what they wish–it may or may not be foregrounded, but the idea that a kid could look at another kid and say “that’s a boy” or that a character could be glossed as a girl in some abiding, permanent, unconditional/absolute/non-tentative way is impossible if we dare to think gender self-determination. In a trans positive world, there are no trans books because there are no cis books–which, currently, are essentially all books.
So, now we come to the drama. The original offending comment:
Don’t you think offering “trans-friendly” books to CHILDREN is a bit like offering pro-plastic-surgery books, or pro-limb-lengthening-surgery books, or gastric-bypass-friendly books to kids? I mean we’re talking about major pharmaceutical dependence, the long-term consequences of which aren’t yet known, and major surgical intervention against what is in actuality healthy flesh. Are none of these trans-advocates concerned at all about children being indoctrinated and influenced to do themselves bodily harm, when they might under less woman-hating circumstances simply be lesbian women or women who otherwise do not adhere to societal gender roles in style or behavior?
So, this whole bodily harm/self-mutilation idea. Mayhem. What does that really signify? What does self mutilation signify?
“major surgical intervention against what is in actuality healthy flesh”–we are changing something from the real, healthy order of things, the natural to the unnatural–that is the essence of self-mutilation. It’s not self mutilation to have, say, an appendectomy or Laparoscopic Anti-Reflux Surgery–even though both involve the removal of healthy tissue–because the tissue in question is irrelevant to our understanding of personhood and reality–whereas in all the cited cases of surgery, one is talking about social characteristics of the body.
The commenter’s presumption is that one can somehow avoid the “subject” of transsexuality entirely, that existing children’s books are not the opening salvos in a war against trans kids. Every single statement she makes about “boys” and “girls,” by assuming that reality is cissexual, are immediately dependent upon a foreclosure of transsexuality. (that is, rejecting it as if it had never existed) That one can be “trans friendly” but not portray it as part of symbolic reality, as “normal”:
guess I was thinking of “trans-friendly” as being more “pro-trans” because that’s the aura it’s taken online. If it were possible to simply portray it, without making it seem like a good thing, or without making it seem like it’s just as normal as being a non-gender-conforming female, intersex, or male person, then, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.
She’s saying–so long as transsexuality is talked about in a way that makes it clear that it’s still up-for-debate, not a-part-of-the-underlying-reality-that-makes-this-discussion-even-possible, and not “normal”–part of the real symbolic order–just a deviation therefrom, an aberration that doesn’t have to be accounted for when we think about the world, it’s ok with her. Her position isn’t even one of wanting to make sure to denounce being trans, because she’s fine if there’s no material out there–she has *no concern* for the “girls” that she’s supposedly advocating for, only for maintaining cissexual dominance over the meaning of reality.
If I need to back that up I’ll need another post–it just gets kinda convoluted. The short version is that she acknowledges that a certain group is suffering distress, but is only interested in making sure they *don’t* get a certain kind of resource, rather than making sure that they do get other resources. Furthermore, her paranoia about even a single children’s book that “pushes drugs and self-mutilation” on kids is demonstrative that she isn’t really worried about how many kids it might cause to transition–because individuals’ cissexuality is much more robust than that, but society’s isn’t.* Society’s myth of universal cissexuality *is* incredibly fragile, and has to be protected at all times–but what has to be done is not to create a stronger foundation (which they never ever do) but to disrupt any other conversation that’s happening. (see my Radical Feminist Troll series, especially parts two and three)
This is why these “discussions” cannot continue to be tolerated in feminist spaces–because the premise is to keep our very reality in check, our existence and validity as people at bay, our lives up for debate. That frame unmakes us, it strips the connection between transsexuality and personhood, its very point is to undo us, making us objects that make funny sounds that seem almost like speech. They demand that all participants ground themselves on earth that doesn’t hold our weight.
Margie’s whole deal with “oh I don’t care what adults do, just don’t indoctrinate the children” is precisely about making sure that no one comes into this world without the cissexuality-as-reality frame. She has no concern for whether people actually “mutilate” themselves, no concern for the welfare even of her putative victim, let alone trans kids–only that that “mutilation” remain aberration, unreal, only that our purchase on reality is too unstable to actually give us the support to go interpreting that reality, challenging the cissexual supremacist one, and have it taken seriously.
“We were talking about the gullibility of young children and whether it’s ethical to exploit that in order to make adult people feel better about their pharmaceutical and surgical choices.”
Arrrgh! No we weren’t! Not sure what conversation you were having but the original post was about trans friendly books for children… and now they’re being exploited? What, you think the kind of books we meant were ones that went like this?