Dispelling Fictions and Disrupting Hashtags
Last week there was a hashtag assault on gender critical women called #TERFweek enacted by a handful of transgender activists on the Internet which resulted in the usual series of straw man arguments and fictions crafted about anyone who writes critiques of gender. The usual epithets such as TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminists) have become the most common means to misrepresenting what gender critical thinkers are actually arguing in addition to imposing labels of ‘cis’ upon these women who cogently argue that they no more identify with gender than any self-identified transgender person. And of course amidst the unfortunate comments throughout the Internet to include various deeply misogynist images such as a Bingo card replete with terribly sexist depictions of women (down to women being envious of transwomen’s legs, because of course that’s what we do—jealousy, cat fights, the works), it becomes painfully evident that many transgender individuals do not understand their interlocutor nor the argument that gender critics make. And then of course Janice Raymond’s name made an appearance as per the usual arguments which attempt to equate gender criticism with the oppression of trans individuals. With online bullying efforts aimed at any woman (and more recently at any man) who argues that gender is a fiction and an oppressive structure, the resurgence of gender criticism is in full force as evidenced over the past year with the strident and cogent responses to these verbal assaults and hyperbole from various writers such as Glosswitch, Sarah Ditum, and Gia Milinovich to The New Statesman’s subtle response to exaggeration and misrepresentation of gender criticism with its series on Second Wave feminism.
Earlier this year, I had a course of discussions with Janice Raymond about the mythologies surrounding her work and her persona. A medical ethicist who published The Transsexual Empire in 1979, Raymond has since this book’s appearance been reviled by many in the transgender community for her controversial text which raises serious questions about the limits that medical intervention might have in effecting any change of sex and in reinventing self-perception of the body and the somatic framing of gender. So I thought that the aftermath of #TERFweek would provide a perfect opportunity to publish this discussion with Raymond, especially now that she has recently been compared to Eichmann by a prominent member of the trans community. Indeed, many transgendered persons in this community, hold Raymond responsible for mass murder but after reading her infamous text, I was not convinced by any measure that what is said about Raymond represents with any modicum of accuracy what she has actually written, said or done. In fact, is notable that the misogyny demonstrated towards women today who discuss the oppressive structures of gender has not changed from the time of Raymond’s book. Today gender critical women are name-called, told to shut the fuck up, coerced into accepting labels they deem offensive (ie. ‘cis’), accused of hate speech for using the word ‘female’ or referring to ‘childbirth’, lesbians are told that their sexuality does not matter and are called bigoted for not sleeping with transwomen and it is assumed that all women have privilege as compared to trans individuals. It is somewhat of a paradox that today women who speak out against gender are pushed back into a differently constructed box that was once upon a time crafted by men. Indeed, questioning gender today implicates the female subject in having to be complicit in her own somatic erasure by those who claim to understand being women better than she.
Janice Raymond shares her thoughts on the current discussions of gender and the ongoing attempts to attack her work and person over the past three and a half decades.
Vigo: Your work is much reviled in the trans community. Yet when I speak with many people online about your book I am struck by the massive numbers of transgender advocates and their allies who have never picked up your book, The Transsexual Empire (1979), or who have merely read snippets from online websites. You have mentioned that you have read the criticism of Sandy Stone regarding your work. How do you locate the criticism of your work by critics such as Stone who have actually studied your work and taken the time to understand it as opposed to a body that has been politicized around demonizing your work without having read it or, at the very least, having been fed a few sound-bytes which legitimately could be viewed as offensive beginning with the subtitle of your book, “The Making of the She-Male,” to various citations that abound online: “I contend that the problem with transsexualism would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence” and “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves …. Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive”. These are some of the quotes I regularly read from people who have not read your work. Google these quotes and you will find websites and blogs decrying your work as “transphobic”. How do you respond to this criticism?
Raymond: “In the absence of contrasting views, the very highest form of propaganda warfare can be fought: the Propaganda for a definition of reality within which only certain limited viewpoints are possible.” C.Wright Mills. I can respond to all these criticisms specifically and have done so elsewhere. Take the common distortion of my work, “transsexuals should be eradicated.” The quotation is false, intellectually irresponsible and appears to be a deliberate misquoting of my actual words written in The Transsexual Empire. What I wrote was, “The issue of transsexualism has profound political and moral ramifications; transsexualism itself is a deeply moral question rather than a medical-technical answer. I contend that the problem of transsexualism would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence.” This means I want to eliminate the medical and social systems that support transsexualism and the reasons why in a gender-defined society, persons find it necessary to change their bodies. Nowhere do I say, “transsexuals should be eradicated on moral grounds,” which has overtone of ethnic cleansing. It’s like saying I want to eliminate women in prostitution because I want to eliminate the system of prostitution. This is just one example, and I could respond very specifically to each and every one of these distorted claims, of which I am well aware.
Vigo: I am aware of these exaggerations, but I am nonetheless struck by how these exaggerations persist and how you are indirectly accused of ethnic or rather transgender cleansing. Yet your book, The Transsexual Empire, tells another story. I was struck in your text that you address decades earlier the central issue that is haunting the conversations between feminists and trans advocates today: that being medical values versus social change. Specifically you discuss the medical model as a theoretical and ethical construct. You write: “Armed with the medical model, and operating on the basis of the narrow “health” values it generates, therapists speculate about the causes of transsexualism and make therapeutic diagnoses within the same framework that generated the problem to begin with (that is, within a role-defined society and its definitions of masculinity and femininity).” Can you elaborate on this further for those who have not read your book?
Raymond: Yes. Many persons, especially feminists, have faced gender dissatisfaction. However, feminists have raised questions and given answers to gender dissatisfaction that go far beyond the transgender context—questions of bodily mutilation and integrity, medical research priorities, definitions of maleness and femaleness and the boundaries of such. Any woman who has experienced the agony of not fitting into a society where gender is defined by rigid roles is hardly insensitive to the suffering that transgender persons experience. Like transgender persons, many women have felt dissatisfied with their bodies and found themselves in a psychically disjointed state because they could not accept their roles. And through an individual and group process of consciousness-raising, many feminists learned that there is a patriarchal power structure that defines who and what we are allowed to be. Many transsexuals and transgender persons speak compellingly from their own experience. Many suffer from acute gender dissatisfaction. Having experienced gender dissatisfaction, however, does not make them or any of us conscious of the larger social, political and medical contexts in which transgenderism is located, unless we examine the social and political underpinnings of what gender is and how it gets created.
Rather than being politicized, the construction of gender dissatisfaction has been thoroughly medicalized in the transgender and transsexual contexts. Even if transgender individuals don’t go through with the surgery, many take some form of hormone. When I wrote The Transsexual Empire, there were very few gender identity clinics for children. Now they exist widely in the U.S. and Australia, as well as in other countries. Whether transgender persons experience their gender identity as given or as “felt,” the question becomes does desire constitute personal identity. If I subjectively feel myself to be a certain way, am I? The medical model takes over where hormones and surgery enter into the picture. I think many well-meaning people do not understand the serious and irreversible treatment nature of hormones and surgery to which transgender persons are subjected. Where surgery is involved, transsexual indivduals often go through not only the primary surgeries but also the secondary surgeries that are often undertaken to correct the imperfections of the primary surgeries that involve a lifelong journey to “transition” to the opposite sex. The medical model is not just present in the clinic, but it also encourages persons to view those who exhibit or feel gender divergent in attitudes, dress and behavior (especially now young children) as potential candidates for treatment. Parents are getting into the act, in taking their children to these clinics. The medical model as a solution to parental gender dissatisfaction with the behavior of their children is also evident in the example of sex conversion surgery in the state of Madhya Pradesh in India.. Reports are being investigated that up to 300 girls were surgically turned into boys for parents who wanted sons. In the context of a country where the population balance has been skewed historically in favor of boys, women’s rights campaigners have denounced the practices stating that transsexual surgery makes a “mockery of women In India.”
The transgender phenomenon seeks not to transcend gender but to incorporate it, whether through medical treatment or self-identification. In my view, it is a form of gender illusion. It depends, as the postmodernists would say, on the gender performance. It preserves gender by exhibiting and incorporating the behavior and conventions of the opposite sex and often by mixing them with the behavior and conventions of one’s biological and historical sex. It’s a repackaging of gender expectations but not a transcending of them. When one moves into hormones and surgery, these confer further rigidification of gender.
Vigo: It seems to me a lot of the problems you touch upon stem from the individual subject of neoliberalism for whom identity is felt, where material reality is obscured by these politics of feelings, and where science maintains a precarious position of being challenged should it emit a statement counter to the desire of certain individuals. I am also thinking of the paradigm of those individuals who mounted attacks on doctors who found that Chronique Fatigue Syndrome has psychological causation. So while attacking episteme which does not match the desires of a certain community, conterminously and paradoxically these subjects seek the validation of science because it is precisely this probate from the medical professionals who will agree with her request, who will supply the desired treatment. Hence I see a problem of medical and psychological teleology here whereby the patient is now a customer and in the true spirit of capitalism, “The customer is not only king,” but the customer is her own author. While I understand the desire for complete autonomy of the body, I wonder if there is a presumption that the teleology for understanding gender dysphoria is not being driven by a politicization rather than the intimate workings of doctor and patient.
Raymond: I hope that more people will come to see gender dissatisfaction not as a dis-ease requiring treatment, or as simply a matter of subjectivity and self-identification, but as an issue that will only be fundamentally addressed if we challenge the gender-defined culture that perpetuates these gender identities. Transgenderism raises half-truths that highlight the often-desperate situation of those individuals in society who have been uniquely body-bound by gender constrictions, but it is not the whole truth. While transgenderism poses the question of gender dissatisfaction and, for many, gender agony, it fails to give a social and political answer. And too often, it offers no solution even on the individual level for those who have gone through a process of transgendering.
Vigo: You wrote in The Transsexual Empire in detail about the problematic use of the word gender:
“The word gender has certain problems for the feminist critic. It gives the impression that there is a fixed set of psychosocial conditions that determines gender identity and role. When used in conjunction with other words such as gender dissatisfaction, gender discomfort, or gender dysphoria, it conveys that these can only be altered by very specialized therapy and/or sophisticated technical means. Feminists have described gender dissatisfaction in very different terms—i. e., as sex-role oppression, sexism, etc. It is significant that there is no specialized or therapeutic vocabulary of black dissatisfaction, black discomfort, or black dysphoria that has been institutionalized in black identity clinics. Likewise, it would be rather difficult and somewhat humorous to talk about sex-role oppression clinics. What the word gender ultimately achieves is a classification of sex-role oppression as a therapeutic problem, amenable to therapeutic solutions. Therefore, I prefer to use the word gender and the phrase, gender dysphoria and the like, when I am discussing the management of the transsexual issue in the therapeutic and/or technical contexts. However, because of the nature of the subject of transsexualism, there were times, while writing this book, when I found the word unavoidable despite my “dissatisfaction. ” In these places, I indeed used it with reservation.”
Can you explain what this means to feel a gender? Or rather how the medical establishment can measure gender at all—as reality, as felt or as satisfaction or dissatisfaction?
Raymond: This is a major part of the problem. “Feeling” a gender is what any person says it is. But usually that description syncs with what we commonly identify as attitudes, mannerisms, dress, behavior, roles, expectations that have historically been identified as male or female. Traditionally, in the gender identify clinics and the private therapy offices that “measure” an individual’s gender dissatisfaction, the treated person had to demonstrate conformity to the cultural version of gender associated with his or her opposite sex. In other words, they must “pass” in the gender of the desired opposite sex. As much as transgender individuals now say that this is not the case, my research indicates that passing is still a primary requirement to obtain surgery. Obtaining hormones is different. Physicians now seem to be handing them out like candy. This is not surprising because the same cavalier medical attitude about the negative health consequences of taking hormones exists in other circumstances, e.g., Lance Armstrong and the race biking industry, major sports figures in professional baseball, and even Olympians. Certainly this easy dispensation of hormones has been historically prevalent in the case of women and HRT—hormone replacement therapy, even after the major nurses’ study featured its harmful consequences for women who were routinely prescribed it during and after menopause. The medicalizing of trangenderism, as located in the clinics, is not an aberration but rather builds on the medicalizing of many other conditions or life phases, such as childbirth (unnecessary caesarians); reproduction (assisted reproduction technologies such as egg harvesting and in vitro fertilization); psychological problems (psychosurgery or as it was called formerly, lobotomy); female aging (hormone, formerly estrogen, replacement therapy); and the enhancing of the failing male erection and orgasm (Viagra).
Vigo: And it would seem that this is precisely part of the critique Stone makes of transgenderism as she writes of the boundaries used to confine the subject:
“To negotiate the troubling and productive multiple permeabilities of boundary and subject position that intertextuality implies, we must begin to rearticulate the foundational language by which both sexuality and transsexuality are described. For example, neither the investigators nor the transsexuals have taken the step of problematizing “wrong body” as an adequate descriptive category. In fact “wrong body” has come, virtually by default, to define the syndrome. It is quite understandable, I think, that a phrase whose lexicality suggests the phallocentric, binary character of gender differentiation should be examined with deepest suspicion. So long as we, whether academics, clinicians, or transsexuals, ontologize both sexuality and transsexuality in this way, we have foreclosed the possibility of analyzing desire and motivational complexity in a manner which adequately describes the multiple contradictions of individual lived experience. We need a deeper analytical language for transsexual theory, one which allows for the sorts of ambiguities and polyvocalities which have already so productively informed and enriched feminist theory.”
Here Stone problematizes the multiple levels of the lived experience and critiques the notion of the “wrong body”. How do you respond to Stone’s contention that the problem is one of language and theory?
Raymond: Is it simply a question of lexicality, language and theory? Would better language and theory taking care to nuance the problematic address the issues that feminists have been historically raising about gender. And what about “practice?” Given a more nuanced theoretical underpinning, what does this mean for our practices that are influenced by gender—that even those who “problematize” the language and the theory undergo hormones and surgery with better analytical prowess? There’s a disconnect in Stone’s analysis between theory and practice, confused by academic post-modern speak.
Vigo: To return briefly to your point of the feeling of gender of the ‘desired opposite sex’, admittedly we cannot measure feelings. But what strikes me is that a medical institution has been put into place to corroborate that there is, in fact, a feeling like a man or a woman. Yet what are the empirical evaluative tools for understanding that a patient feels like a man or a woman? In other words, it seems that the problem is one of medical teleology setting up an predetermined answer? Your gender hurts, we can fix that. Your thoughts?
Raymond: Yes, but “they” can only fix it in certain ways that are “their” rules of medical teleology and others are presented with the rules. Also, the very fact that “gender hurts” has now been institutionalized in the “transsexual empire” of physicians, psychologists and clinics that serves as the reference point for any kind of gender hurt. Even the normal gender “hurts” of childhood now can easily be referred to treatment.
Vigo: For another article I have been writing, I interviewed a psychotherapist in London who told me that in fact more and more the DSM is influenced by pharmaceutical companies—what goes in it, what does not. She also pointed to the fact that today we are seeing everyday emotions ‘medicalized’. We were speaking specifically about mourning, now rendered a condition which has also been medicalized in the DSM. What are your thoughts on this in relation to this notion of “gender hurts”?
Raymond: Yes, medicalizing everyday emotions has become a way of life, which Mary Daly has eloquently written about. I also wrote about it in the TE, that more and more emotions are becoming medicalized. Medicalized language generate syndromes that affect even legal decisions, since proving woman-battering in court often requires the defendant to express her emotions in some syndrome such as the “Stockholm syndrome” or “post-traumatic stress disorder.” I’m not saying that battering doesn’t entail a range of emotions, but unless they are captured in a therapeutic category, the effects of woman-battering often are not taken seriously or even admissible as a defense in a legal courtroom. I think back to George Orwell’s description of “Newspeak” in 1984 that was “designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought…” When feelings of gender dissatisfaction are medicalized and referred for treatment, this prevents the person experiencing those emotions from understanding them in a social and political context.
Vigo: You discuss the medicalization of gender which addresses an ethical concern which parallels many of the feminists with whom I have spoken in recent months:
“The present counseling and treatment of transsexuals, based on the medical model I have described, give the transsexual no real moral options. Failing to analyze our society’s definitions of masculinity and femininity, such therapy offers little encouragement and advice to help the transsexual live beyond both these containers of personhood. Consider the possibility of counseling that encouraged the transsexual to break both stereotypes. Here, the transsexual would be encouraged to become the agent of her or his own energies and to strive for more varied modes of being and becoming. In a very real sense, at this point, the transsexual would become a social critic. All of us are in some way constricted by sex-role socialization. One way of viewing transsexuals is that they are uniquely constricted by the rigidified definitions of masculinity and femininity. The general cultural constrictions, from which we all suffer, become body-laden with them. However, deprived of an alternative framework in which to view the problem, the transsexual is unable to express the problem clearly. The gender identity clinics have a vested interest in suppressing criticism, and may collude with the transsexual to solve the problem in an ultimately uncritical way. Given a different mode of therapy where “consciousness-raising” is the primary modus operandi, the transsexual might not find it as necessary to resort to sex-conversion surgery.”
Many transgender individuals maintain that they do not feel at home in their body. They also maintain that their consciousness is perfectly raised—that theirs is a subjective quest. As you are probably aware, many trans persons argue that clinical guidelines force them to perform the expected, the stereotyped gender which puts them at odds with their own feelings about their body, about their gender and the medical institution. So might it be that the transwoman or transman is taking such steps because they cannot resolve this dissonance between the body and the rigid definitions of gender?
Raymond: There are no bodies that exist outside multiple “locations” including society, culture, class, sex, race, ethnicity, etc. To make the location even more body-specific, we have certain abilities and disabilities that govern our locations. Our bodies are always located somewhere, and to speak about the body as if it is not located outside itself is reductive.
For many who identify as transgender persons, the dissonance appears to be resolved by the surgery and bodily alterations. For others, however, surgery has not proved to be the Promised Land. In The Transsexual Empire, I acknowledged that many who identify as transgender go the surgical route because of “the dissonance between the body and rigid definitions of gender?” But whereas those who identify as transgender understand this dissonance as an answer that explains their surgical journey, many feminists including myself understand it as a question that interrogates the route chosen. One could say that in choosing the surgery, gender dissidence is short-circuited at the stage of gender dissonance. The body becomes reified as the primary location of rigid gender definitions.
Vigo: In her rebuttal to your work, Sandy Stone responded with “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto” (1987). Instead of relying on her own personal notions of what transsexuals desire or experience, Stone uses the example of Hedy Jo Star, whose autobiography, I Changed My Sex (1965), references her sex reassignment surgery: “In the instant that I awoke from the anesthetic, I realized that I had finally become a woman.” Stone’s work is a very nuanced approach to gender and in citing Star’s experience of gender, Stone contends that there is not a universal of transsexual experience. Ultimately, Stone makes a appeal in her work for transsexual subjectivity: “Sex and gender are quite separate issues, but transsexuals commonly blur the distinction by confusing the performative character of gender with the physical “fact” of sex, referring to their perceptions of their situation as being in the “wrong body”. Although the term transsexual is of recent origin, the phenomenon is not.” And Stone continues by discussing this struggle for the subject to represent herself in the section aptly entitled, “Whose Story is This Anyway?”:
“Making” history, whether autobiographic, academic, or clinical, is partly a struggle to ground an account in some natural inevitability. Bodies are screens on which we see projected the momentary settlements that emerge from ongoing struggles over beliefs and practices within the academic and medical communities. These struggles play themselves out in arenas far removed from the body. Each is an attempt to gain a high ground which is profoundly moral in character, to make an authoritative and final explanation for the way things are and consequently for the way they must continue to be. In other words, each of these accounts is culture speaking with the voice of an individual. The people who have no voice in this theorizing are the transsexuals themselves. As with males theorizing about women from the beginning of time, theorists of gender have seen transsexuals as possessing something less than agency. As with genetic women, transsexuals are infantilized, considered too illogical or irresponsible to achieve true subjectivity, or clinically erased by diagnostic criteria; or else, as constructed by some radical feminist theorists, as robots of an insidious and menacing patriarchy, an alien army designed and constructed to infiltrate, pervert and destroy “true” women. In this construction as well, the transsexuals have been resolutely complicit by failing to develop an effective counter discourse.”
I am deeply sympathetic to Stone’s appeal here and to the struggle for the subject to speak for herself. Do you see common ground between trans persons who struggle with agency to name their condition or to frame their lives and the ways in which women have been historically subject to similar kinds of marginalization or attempts to moralize and limit their choices? Or even that both groups could be viewed as subjects who have little to no say in their self-construction?
Raymond: I agree with Stone’s contention that, as you phrased it, these struggles play themselves out in arenas far removed from the body and that each of these accounts is culture speaking with the voice of an individual. I think that Stone’s assertion—that the people who have no voice in this theorizing are those individuals who identify as transgender themselves—is very much outdated, as witnessed by the plethora of transgender blogs, websites and twitter accounts.
You mention you are “deeply sympathetic…to the struggle for the subject to speak for herself,” but subjectivity without a location can also be deeply deceiving. We are all individuals in particular societies, cultures, classes, etc. We are not simply “free to be you and me.” If we focus on isolated notions of subjectivity and don’t test our subjectivity in an examination of the political landscape, we risk deceiving ourselves.
It is very fashionable to critique radical feminists for representing various groups as victims with no agency, and I think Stone circles this wagon, at least in the section you have represented. My response, however, goes well beyond Stone as a point of reference, to the discussion of agency in many other contexts. If I take the example of writings on prostitution, there is much denial of women’s victimization in the prostitution industry. The pro-sex work folks castigate abolitionists for placing too much emphasis on what they call the “myth of the woman as victim.” They like to tell us how women in prostitution use their agency to subvert the sex industry. The kind of agency they champion is the accommodations that prostituted women make, which keep them in the sex industry, and they call this self-determination. Interestingly, they do not locate women’s agency in their resistance to the sex industry and definitely not in their exit from the industry. Instead, they minimize the sexual objectification, men’s use of women’s bodies as commodities for pleasure and profit, and claim that if women are shrewd and savvy operators, they can use the sex of prostitution to be empowered. The point I’m making about prostitution is one I would also make in the context of transgenderism. There is so much limitation of transgender agency to the decisions to undertake hormonal and/or surgical transitions. Within the context of what has become a gender industry, other options remain invisible or are minimized. Agency is never championed for those who de-transition, or for those who have considered hormones and surgery but choose differently.
Agency is a capability, not realized until it is exercised. How and in what contexts we choose to exercise agency makes a big difference. There’s a lot of romanticizing of women’s agency under conditions of oppression and a denial that agency and victimization are compatible. And there’s a lot of misrepresentation of feminist criticism of the trangender process, as infantilizing transsexuals. We live in a culture in which many women and persons who identify as transgender are made satisfied with the pretexts that pass for empowerment. Judith Butler, for example, valorizes transsurgical intervention as a very brave transformation. Yet, transgendered individuals who have left the fold and been critical of the movement to channel gender-dissatisfied persons into treatment and surgery are hardly given this same kind of valorization of agency and instead are publicly derided for exercising their agency in resisting the medicalization of gender. Heath Russell, a woman who began the hormonal process of transgendering to maleness, and then de-transitioned, has been an outspoken critic of the transgender process and writes: “While the trans community likes to say that we are special and unique snowflakes, they don’t take into account that we have different experiences, if you stray from the trans narrative, you are condemned. I have had people tell me that I was never ‘really’ a trans person because I de-transitioned. If I were to use my [breast] binder and go back on hormones, I would be told, ‘You go, bro!’”
Feminist critics of the transgendering process affirm exercising agency in resisting gender prescriptions rather than submitting to the medicalization of gender.
Vigo: Back in the Seventies doctors presumed that all trans persons wanted SRS (sex reassignment surgery). Today this is less and less the case. Many transwomen and men are opting out of surgeries and some altogether out of both surgeries and hormone treatments. How do you view this shift in transgender identification and praxis?
Raymond: I do not believe that feelings, self-identification, hormones or surgery make a woman or a man, or that sex is a matter of subjectivity, desire, or medical procedures. For the most part, the term transgender has replaced transsexual and covers a wider continuum of behaviors and treatments designated as transgendering. The trans umbrella includes preoperative and postoperative persons who identify as transgender, those who cross-dress, those who exhibit any kind of identity or behavior that is self-interpreted as crossing gender, and those who simply “feel” that they are members of the opposite sex. Some seek hormonal and surgical change of appearance, and others seek a change of pronouns. At the insistence of transadvocates, it has become politically correct for participants in progressive discussion forums, when they identify themselves, to specify which pronouns they prefer.
In reading the accounts of various individuals who resorted to surgery or hormones, or self-identify as members of the opposite sex, I find the transgendering process has little or no substantive critique of gender. Much of it conforms to a heterosexist script that preserves gender-based and hetero-normative roles and behaviors. The language of sexual rebellion is often the language of sexual conformity. It encourages a style rather than a politics of gender resistance in which an expressive individualism has taken the place of collective political challenges to power. And in the process it has de-politicized feminism. Those engaged in the transgendering process often “gender blend” but don’t move beyond gender. The claim that transgenderism, whether facilitated by hormones, surgery or simply subjectivity, is a form of gender resistance is alluring but false. Instead, transgenderism reduces gender resistance to hormones, surgery and self-identification. What good is a gender outlaw who is still abiding by the law of gender?
Vigo: It has been stated by many trans advocates and various websites such as RationalWiki that you have collaborated with Senator Jesse Helms: “This is not, in practice, simply a philosophical dispute. For example, Janice Raymond, radical feminist author of The Transsexual Empire, collaborated with Senator Jesse Helms during the 1980s in order to deny coverage for sexual reassignment surgery under Medicare.” And the footnote to this claim, “Janice G. Raymond, Ph.D.,” Transsexual, Transgender, and Intersex History, 1998, links to a website at the University of Michigan where you are in good company with Jesse Helms and the Nazi Party (I presume that this person capitalizes NAZI to let us know that Nazis are REALLY evil?). How do you respond to such accusations?
Raymond: If you look at the actual source that you cite, there is no evidence that any of this is remotely true. In fact the source referenced in your question has no mention of Jesse Helms. This fallacious quote is a primary example of how an initial fiction is let loose in the transgender blogosphere and in Twitterdom, with other transgender advocates quoting each other—not any primary sources that document the assertion. In the process, the original fabrication gets embellished into additional layers that lack any verification or credible documentation.
I have never met or collaborated with Jesse Helms. The original source, as far as I have been able to determine, is a piece on “Janice G. Raymond” in Rational Wiki, which has appeared on the Internet since 1998. The source quoted that you cite is another similar piece that asserts the collaboration but gives no verification of any link between Janice Raymond and Jesse Helms, a former U.S. conservative Republican senator. The 1998 piece does not even mention Jesse Helms. There are no references in either the Rational Wiki entry or the 1998 piece that you cite, which document this claimed collaboration with Jesse Helms. The 1998 piece is also full of other inaccuracies. Yet it has been repeated ad nauseam on the Internet.
On other sites, transgender activists have claimed that Jesse Helms used my paper to stymy Medicare payments for transsexual surgery, which then influenced private insurers to do the same. I know of no sources documenting that Jesse Helms has ever used my work for his own purposes.
Vigo: Well there is more to come. Here is what appears on the TransGriot website about you:
“For you folks who are wondering why you can’t use the insurance policies you pay for to cover much of the medical work you need done or wonder why the Medicaid and Medicare taxes you pay doesn’t cover SRS or any trans related care, you have Dr. Janice G. Raymond and her unleashed disco era transphobia to thank for that.”
How do you address such claims? And are you opposed to public funding for these treatments?
Raymond: The TransGriot website bases the above quote on a paper I was asked to write in 1980 for the National Center for Health Care Technology (NCHCT). TransGriot writes: “[Raymond’s] paper eliminated federal and state aid for indigent and imprisoned transsexuals.” With the advent of the Internet, the fiction that this paper “eliminated” federal and state aid for those who identify as transgender persons went viral. This fiction credited me with decisions about funding for transgender surgery that were never made by the federal government and with a mythical influence on Medicare policy.
In 1981, the U.S. government did not “reverse course” by withdrawing federal funds available for transgender treatment and surgery. Historically, federal and state aid in the United States has not funded transgender treatment for anyone so it could not be “eliminated” by any paper I or anyone else wrote. Medicare still does not subsidize transgender treatment and surgery in the United States. And it is only recently that states have been called upon to use taxpayer monies for prisoners who request the treatment and surgery. As of April 2014, Medicare did not cover the surgery.
The NCHCT commissioned this paper, among other reasons, to determine “whether specific procedures are ‘reasonable and necessary’ and thus appropriate for reimbursement by Medicare.” My paper on the social and ethical aspects of transgender surgery was never published by the NCHCT but was treated as a consultative paper among many that were solicited from other experts and groups at the same time.
Whenever such papers are commissioned, there are multiple individuals and organizations also requested to submit reviews. Others asked in 1980 to present opinions were the-then National Institute of Mental Health of the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration who performed a literature review and provided an opinion of the efficacy of sex change surgery. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American College of Surgeons, American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, and the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons were also asked to provide reviews.
The NCHCT took these submissions and published a report on “Transsexual Surgery” in its 1981 Assessment Report Series. My findings were quoted neutrally in one sentence of the 15 page final report. “Some have held that it would be preferable to modify society’s sex role expectations of men and women than to modify either the body or the mind of individuals to fit these expectations. (Raymond 1980).” This was the only part of my paper that made it into the published report. The conclusion of the NCHCT report was that transgender surgery is “controversial” and “must be considered experimental.” To give my submission credit for these conclusions is fatuous in the context of reading a report that was obviously informed by multiple sources.
I did not then or now believe that federal or state funds should subsidize transgender surgery for anyone because, in my view, it is unnecessary surgery and medical mutilation. I would argue the same about healthy limb amputations now justified in some of the clinical literature for those designated as suffering from a so-called Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID). BIID subjects have threatened suicide or taken matters into their own hands if deprived of the surgery, as have many transgendered persons who desperately pursue hormones and surgery.
In conclusion, my 1980 paper on the social and ethical aspects of transgender surgery did not feature influentially in the NCHCT’s report concluding that transsexual surgery was controversial and experimental. Nor did the NCHCT report “eliminate” federal and state funding for transsexual surgery because funding was not approved for this purpose long before my paper was written.
I support those who identify as transgender accessing the same kind of health care as anyone else.
Vigo: Dallas Denny, transgender advocate, writes the following about you:
“Raymond’s book, which was published in 1979, was a vicious political attack on male-to-female transsexualism, the doctors who treated them, and transsexuals themselves. Its premise was ridiculous premise, its language pejorative language, and it was completely lacking in empirical evidence. Make no mistake: Raymond disguised her hatred of us in a thin veneer of scholarship. Nonetheless, Empire was well-received. Today, more than 30 years after its release, it remains in print and continues to fuel hate toward transsexuals, especially in lesbian separatist communities.”
What are your thoughts about such claims?
Raymond: Many writers during their lives learn to be inured to the misrepresentations and malicious depictions of their work and the fictions that often characterize much of what they have to say. In transgender circles, “transphobe” is now a word used as facilely as was “communist” by the McCarthyites in the 1950s. And like the word “communist,” labeling any person a “transphobe” or “transphobic” functions as a form of controlling the airwaves or, in this historical time, controlling the search engines. “You are what we say you are.”
There is a big difference between criticism and transphobia. If one writes about transgenderism in a critical way, that person will most likely be dismissed as transphobic by trans activists, or even be targeted as guilty of hate-speech Any dissent from the premise that transgender surgery and/or transgender identity transforms men into women, or women into men, invites these kinds of attacks. Transgender advocates define conscientious objection to transgenderism as equal to transphobia.
I have been exiled to public enemy status in the company of author Sheila Jeffreys, journalist Julie Bindel, lesbian feminist singer Alix Dobkin, deceased writer Mary Daly, and at one point, U.S. congressman Barney Frank, among other outliers on planet transgender. However, I retain the dubious title of “the trans community’s Public Enemy Number One” for my early book on The Transsexual Empire. This sort of labeling excuses those who use it from engaging with the substance of the arguments and ideas that are at the heart of any policy dispute.
A major problem with these kinds of accusations is that they have become so strident and lurid that no open discussion and debate can take place without dissenters being cast as transphobic or being virulently attacked. Instead of addressing substance, transadvocates aim personal attacks especially at feminists who raise issues of unnecessary surgery, medical mutilation, channeling children who exhibit non-normative sex role behavior into hospital-based gender identity clinics with the potential goal of surgery, and reinforcement of a gender-defined society.
The transgender community is also at odds with itself. Disagreements exist over who is a true transgendered person – individuals who are preoperative, postoperative or those who simply self-identify as the opposite sex without going through any hormones or surgery. Transgendered individuals who have left the fold and been critical of the move to channel gender-dissatisfied persons into treatment and surgery have been publicly criticized. And some who identify as trans women are now complaining that some who identify as trans men “are lionized as beautiful subversive heroes while we’re left as monstrous ‘unfuckable’ unwelcomes whose permission to be present is always ready to be revoked…They [trans men] get welcomed as full members of spaces set aside for women…their transmisogny is overlooked because they’re trans…” (just like it says: fake cis girl).
The debate over transgender is further complicated by the 2014 decision of the High Court in Sydney, Australia, which recognizes that a person may register as neither male nor female. This decision permits the recording of a person’s sex as “non-specific” and will likely be much debated within the transgender community. Especially because transgendering persons have spent years affirming their identities as men or women, and censuring those who disagree, it will be instructive to see whether most transgender persons accept this as their identity.
Vigo: Can you comment upon your use of rape as an analogy in The Transsexual Empire, and the criticism that it has received? For instance, some claim this analogy is confusing, many feminists claim it appropriates and trivializes rape, and still others maintain such language sensationalizes trans women. After all, trans women are not raping anyone’s body.
Raymond: In The Transsexual Empire, I used rape as a metaphor as in the figure of speech, “rape of the earth,” to describe the male transgender person’s demand for access to women’s bodies in undergoing treatment and surgery to become women. It was not an appropriate metaphor, and I would not use it again in this context. I was trying to point out the age-old patriarchal presumption that women’s bodies should always be made available to men and the unique way in which transsexual surgery mimics this access to women’s bodies, with men gaining entrée to the female body not as sexual and/or reproductive property, but through hormonal and surgical construction. In this case, rape was not a proper metaphor because it minimized the distinct meaning of rape and took on a critical life of its own rather than illuminating the point I was trying to make.
Relative to this discussion, I must comment that a number of men who claim they are women, having gone through through hormones, surgery and/or self-identification, are devoting enormous energy to accessing women’s events or spaces. Whether it is women’s locker rooms, or women’s conference rooms, or women’s concerts, men who identify as transwomen are demanding access. The Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter was taken to court by a person who identified as a transwoman because this person applied and was rejected as a rape crisis counselor for women clients of the Shelter. The British Colombia Supreme Court in Canada ruled that the Vancouver women’s shelter could reject those who identify as transmen as counselors for raped and battered women. The Court recognized that in some cases, woman-only peer groups are appropriate. The women’s shelter had offered the person who identifies as transgender who applied to be a counselor other positions in the organization.
Men who claim to be translesbians are demanding sexual access to lesbians. Some transgender forums have been organized specifically to discuss and strategize how lesbians could be pressured to date and have sex with transwomen who identify as lesbians. As one transgender activist put it, “Trans women’s bodies are female bodies, whether or not we have penises.” Perhaps the epitome of this incongruity is illustrated in those men who identify as lesbians claiming that they have a lesbian penis or, as one transgender activist worded it, a “lady stick.” (http://kittybarber.wordpress.com/tag/ladystick/) Within the last decade, so-called translesbians have stepped up the pressure on lesbians to have sexual relations with them, accusing lesbians of discriminating against them if lesbians just say no.
Vigo: What are your thoughts regarding the current clashes between trans activists and radical feminists and use of the term TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminists)?
Raymond: There is a current of misogyny that runs through many transgender media, as indicated in the term TERF’s (trans exclusionary radical feminists), or worse, the term “radfem scum” used on some transgender sites. In contrast to transgender advocates, feminist critics of transgender don’t try to exclude transgender advocates from speaking in public. The term exclusionary applies par excellence to transgender advocates who engage in campaigns to silence feminist speech, even when the topic is not transgender.
Transgender advocates have labeled as exclusionary, radical feminists who do not agree that surgery or hormones or self-identification transforms men into women, or women into men. They have gone further and stated that such views are tantamount to hate speech. Yet it is not radical feminists who send hate screeds, threats and death wishes to transgender authors, hack transgender websites or attach badly-drawn diagrams of the genital organs to specific transgender critics, as “transjacktivist” Paris Lees did to Julie Bindel. Another transgender activist created an image of a pesticide can bearing a photo of Sheila Jeffreys with the message that the pesticide “kills rad fems instantly.”
Transgender advocates have also written, “Radical Feminists are often a bigger threat to the safety and dignity of trans women than society at large.” As well as being a backhanded compliment to the outsized power of radical feminism, this claim illustrates the kind of transgender obsession and hatred of radical feminists that permeate transgender writings.
Much of the online excrement about radical feminists is powered by misogyny, the misogyny of men who if they did not represent themselves as trans women would have little credence. The misogyny that comes from men who identify as women, such as Julia Serrano and Joelle Ruby Ryan, reveals typical male dominant and abusive behavior, which no amount of surgery and hormones can change. This behavior comes not from the fact they are still biologically male but rather from learning the worst patterns of male bullying and aiming it at those with whom they disagree. As one person who identifies as a “an assimilated trans woman and feminist” has written of the transgender activists who demand access to all-women events and meetings, “trans activists…not only don’t have the best interests of women in mind, but moreover frequently behave in misogynistic ways” (http://snowflakeespecial.tumblr.com/post/54689372575/open-letter-to-beaver-hall-gallery-im-a-trans-woman).
The upside of this controversy is that it has given new life to radical feminism. If radical feminist voices had been drowned out formerly, particularly on this subject, the attempts to censor feminist speech has awakened not only radical feminist voices but the voices of others who are now beginning to ask serious questions about how, what Sheila Jeffreys has called, “Gender Hurts.”
Vigo: Lately there is a troubling political modality in my view to besmirch people’s reputation and blight—if not completely destroy—their careers because of their positions taken around issues of gender criticism or in your case, the investigation and writing of a book from the point of a medical ethicist and feminist. People are being ‘no-platformed’ for their work in feminism (ie. Julie Bindel) because of their writings which are critical of gender. Have you experienced this type of no-platforming over your career in your work on the trafficking of women? Could you elaborate your experiences?
Raymond: Trans activists have made much use of the term “transphobic” in an attempt to tarnish the reputations of feminist critics and, in the process, try to get them disinvited from speaking in public places. However, there is a big difference between conscientious criticism and transphobia. Transgender advocates aggressively attack any critical voice as transphobic and try to censor us from speaking. Anyone who has been a known critic of transgenderism has been no-platformed from selected events. Transgender advocates have pressured event organizers to disinvite critics, in spite of the fact that they are not speaking on the subject of transgender. Transgender advocates know that censoring criticism allows the accusation of transphobia to prevail, and they appear willing to distort the words of those they disagree with. Critics are not allowed to speak for themselves, although they have been misquoted and their actual positions misrepresented.
Dissenters from transgender orthodoxies have been hounded with a fanaticism that characterizes religious and political fundamentalists of all stripes. Accusations and attacks against those who dissent from transgender ideology have become so vitriolic that journalists not aligned with any position, who write about the debate over transgenderism, are also attacked as transphobic when they raise critical points or questions about the subject. Easily-made accusations of transphobia aimed at critics of transgenderism are seldom challenged. Those who accuse and attack are not held responsible for the truth of their claims and for substantiating these claims with verifiable sources. After many years of ignoring these accusations and attacks, I found it necessary to establish a Fictions and Facts section of my website at Janiceraymond.com.
What is especially alarming is that such unsubstantiated claims are not only the work of anonymous Internet trolls but also of more public individuals who capture a wide net of attention online. Just as alarming is that some progressive groups and media have censored any criticism of transgenderism. In 2013, the governmental Norwegian Ombuds Office excluded me from a panel to which the Office had invited me on the subjects of prostitution and the Norwegian law penalizing the purchasing of sexual activities. On the day I arrived in Oslo, the Ombuds Office Director informed me that the Office was disinviting me after a letter appeared in the Norwegian newspaper, Dagbladat, representing my writings as “transphobic.” The Ombuds director took as truth what was actually a misrepresentation of my views without ever asking me if this letter was a valid account of my work.
Several months ago, transgender activists attempted to censor me from speaking at an event to commemorate the victims of the Montreal Massacre. The topic of my talk was prostitution. I was invited by the Vancouver Rape Relief and Crisis Center who had rented the Vancouver Public Library for the event. In a letter to the Library, transgender activists claimed I was guilty of hate-speech and that I had made controversial statements against transgender people in the past. The Vancouver Public Library refused to cancel my talk stating: “…[W]e have to make space for all ideas in our community…even those we personally or institutionally disagree with because, as a society, we are better off when we all have free speech – not just those people who agree with us.”
Vigo: You have written about stereotypes and the function of gender:
“If the stereotypes themselves are not confronted but are only frowned upon when acted out by persons of the ‘wrong’ sex, then the origins of transsexualism will be individualized and psychologized. What will go unexamined is patriarchy’s norms of masculinity and femininity and how these norms, if allowed to contain persons within such rigid boundaries, may generate such a phenomenon as transsexualism.”
What do you mean by transsexualism as “phenomenon” since many trans theorists maintain that transgenderism is not a new historical phenomenon but one of a deeper cultural continuum? And are you placing the responsibility on the trans person to confront stereotypes of gender over the rest of us who might also have that same obligation to de-psychologize gender?
Raymond: The history of which you speak, including the Native American berdaches or the female husbands of Dahomey, is not the sole province of transsexuals who place that history on a continuum of transsexualism. It has also been claimed by others, including feminists, lesbians, gay men, and cross-dressers who place the same historical examples on their respective continuums. Transsexuals move off this claimed historical continuum in undergoing surgical transformation. There are powerful medical institutions that provide transsexuals with treatment and surgery, so in this significant sense, transsexual surgery is a phenomenon of the 20th century.
As for the responsibility to confront stereotypes of gender and whether that puts the burden primarily on those who identify as transgender or transsexual, I reiterate some final sentences of The Transsexual Empire. “What can be overlooked, however, is that these same stereotypes, behaviors, and gender dissatisfactions are lived out every day in “native” bodies. The issues that transsexualism can highlight should by no means be confined to the transsexual context.” Everyone has the burden of confronting gender stereotyping.
Biographical Note: Janice Raymond is the author of six books, most recently Not a Choice, Not a Job: Exposing the Myths About Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade. Her official author’s online site is available at janiceraymond.com
Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org