Robyn's Perch

Monday, July 17, 2006

A Review

Bernice Hausman, Changing Sex: Transsexualism, Technology, and the Idea of Gender, Duke University Press, 1995.

It has always bothered me when someone writes a book that attacks the being of people with a different outlook on existence. It frustrates me a whole lot more when the person writing the text does so in the name of philosophy, cultural anthropology or sociology. When that person espouses her opinions without having all the facts, it makes me sad. But when the author doesn't have all the facts because she has failed to do her homework, it makes me angry.

Ms. Hausman has indeed done some homework in writing this tome. Anyone needing to know about the history of gender in the first two thirds of this century will find it quite useful, provided they can get past the way she has chosen to emphasize certain aspects of the discourse. The problem is that she uses this "history" as she has constructed it to vilify a group of people. Her goal, as near as I can tell, is to contribute to the deconstruction of gender. What is sad is that she truly seems to believe that the way to do this is to destroy the being of transsexual people.

The best thing about this text, from my admittedly biased position as a transsexual woman, is that it is such a difficult read that very few people are going to struggle through it. Ms. Hausman never uses a small word where a big one will do. And none but the heartiest gender theorist is likely to comprehend her chain of logic (or illogic, as the case may be). Unfortunately, that is still too many people in my opinion.

The author's point, I gather, is that if it weren't for the existence of transsexual people and intersexual people (which I will identify as a group by the term "gender variant") and the medical and psychological professionals who studied them in the earlier in this century, the modern concept of gender would not exist. And eradication of the concept of gender and gender stereotypes is considered a Good Thing in Ms. Hausman's view.

Ms. Hausman seems to view transsexualism as some sort of monolithic evil because of the way it reinforces gender stereotypes. The fatal flaw in her vigorous attack, however, lies in her unadulterated stereotyping of transsexual folk. The use of stereotyping to counter the existence of stereotypes hardly seems to be a rational approach. It strikes me rather as an academic way of saying "So's your mama!" Time and again, the author misses the point since she has already decided what her conclusion is going to be and refuses to let anything (such as fairness or facts) stand in her way. I can only hope that other readers find the text as truly distasteful as I did.

I am truly amazed that the author could spend as much time and effort studying the phenomenon of gender variance as she obviously did in producing this work and yet could gain so little insight into actual gender variant people. But the reason why this happened is clear. Ms. Hausman studied gender variance by reading the works of non-gender-variant people which described the phenomenon (1). This is rather like studying the inhabitants of colonized areas by restricting oneself to reading the works of the colonialists. To be sure, Ms. Hausman did read some autobiographies by transsexual people, but none of these were published more recently than 1979, though she did acknowledge in an epilogue reading Kate Bornstein's book, "Gender Outlaw: on men women and the rest of us." Unfortunately, she did not apparently notice how this last text might have opened the door to a new line of study which might have invalidated some of her major points and allowed the book to be published anyway, including only a weak and defensive argument in the epilogue.

The stereotype about transsexual people that the author finds most irresistible is the notion that they change sex to be heterosexual (while at the same time she describes them as primarily asexual...she never seems to quite get a handle on this paradox). She claims that gender variant folk claiming an identity separate from that of homosexuals is nothing short of homophobic. Her perception of this heterosexism of transsexual people is central to her theory. It was indeed disheartening to discover that the author had spent so much of her time burying herself in theory written by non-transsexual people that she apparently failed to discover the one glaring fault in her logic, a fault that she would surely have discovered had she conversed or corresponded (or wished to know, for this knowledge would certainly have ruined her project) with any actual transfolk: while we don't have any actual figures, it is probable that more than half of transsexual men and women identify post-transition as lesbian, gay or bisexual (indeed the author must have known this from reading Bornstein's book, but she fails to mention it even in the epilogue). This fact is definitely not available from reading the works on her reading list. It was the people who wrote these works that were in large part homophobic. Gender variant people knew it then and know it now. It is the reason that they preferred not to discuss their sex lives and were hence labelled as being asexual by these researchers (which explains the paradox addressed above). After all, a male-to-female transsexual person who identified as a lesbian and a female-to-male transsexual person who identified as gay *would not* be accepted as a patient by these folks. Thankfully, times have changed. Unfortunately, Ms. Hausman's research did not reveal this change(2).

Another bone of contention I have with Ms. Hausman's work (I will not counter them all, or this review would approach the length of her text(3)) is rather more theoretical. She claims that a concept cannot exist before it is named. I find this a rather alarming statement coming from a supposed academic mind. If the concept does not exist, it surely cannot be named! Specific to her work, the concept that she approaches in this manner is that of "gender" as being separate from "sex" first and "gender role" second.

Ms. Hausman claims that it wasn't until the mid-1950s that John Money defined the concept...and that before that life was good, from what I am given to understand. It may very well be true (I have no doubt that Money lays claim to being the man who coined the term in this context, but one wonders what took him so long). After all, there were so-called sex-change operations earlier than 1955, so surely the concept must have existed in *some* minds. And I have no doubt that the concept of gender, if not its label, existed in the minds of gender variant people far before Money's definition. Medical doctors and psychologists do not just make up terms out of whole cloth. They see a condition and they attempt to label and describe it (being, as they are, so conditioned by the nature of their education).

Ms. Hausman attacks transfolk for their use of the terminology that the medical/psychological establishment used to describe their condition. While I agree with her that transsexual people tend to pattern their self-descriptions based on this terminology (to the point that some transfolk have even reinvented their histories to match the terms(4)), I rather think that the reason for this is that it was the only vocabulary that allowed transfolk and the doctors to communicate. Surely Ms. Hausman herself encountered difficulty in describing gender variant people using a language that did not include words to describe more than two sexes/genders(5). The author is apparently complaining that those early gender variant people did not develop their own vocabulary. This is tantamount to insisting that our community be nothing less than linguistic geniuses from the very outset. We *are* developing our own vocabulary, given the constraint imposed on us of being able to communicate with the society around us. If we have in someway hijacked terminology that she thinks should be used in other ways, then let her join in our discussions. We are, if anything, highly flexible people.

The author does in truth point out some disturbing trends among transsexual people. It is indeed true that we read whatever we can find about our condition in order to learn about ourselves and all too often we rely on the the conclusions drawn in those writings to describe our own existence, rather than speaking our individual truths. Largely this is because we must develop the vocabularity to discover our commonality, but we sometimes do tend to go overboard. We do not have to all be the same anymore, as was once the case. And some of us are addicted to surgical intervention to change more than our genital morphology. And some of us claim unknown, perhaps even unknowable, biological sources for our condition instead of just accepting that we are the way we are because that is how we feel (which, to my way of thinking, is not a bad thing...since when are feelings and convictions inherently evil?). And some of us, to our shame, *are* probably even homophobic. We are just people, perhaps not like everyone else, but people nonetheless. We have our faults and we have our virtues. It woul have be nice if Ms. Hausman had spent some time examining some of those virtues.

We did not construct gender roles. They existed long before we began upsetting the binary gender apple cart. Nor do we monolithically reinforce them. There is no such thing as the typical transperson. While it is true that all too often we are willing to be stereotyped, willing to phrase our truths in the terms that doctors and therapists need to hear in order to get the type of treatment we desire, our lives do not end when we have surgery. To target the period of our lives spent pursuing our dreams against an often unfriendly society is equivalent to blaming us for any maltreatment we may receive. Too often we have seen feminists jump on this bandwagon and Ms. Hausman has seen fit to join in with this transbashing.

That Ms. Hausman does so while purporting to be a truly enlightened academic is truly unfortunate.

Robyn Elaine Serven, Ph. D.
University of Central Arkansas (at time of review)
Bloomfield College (now)

(1) To be sure, Ms. Hausman does mention visiting a conference sponsored by the International Foundation for Gender Education (IFGE) in 1991. That she failed to understand that the IFGE is primarily run by non-transsexual people but is rather much more dominated by transvestites is truly regrettable.

(2) Yes, the author did visit an IFGE conference, which she found to be quite homophobic. I attended the organization's 1996 convention and came away with the same sense. Perhaps the fact that most of the participants were in fact heterosexual, as transvestites are known to predominately be, might explain this.

(3) Among them are her use of outdated statistics, such as the fact male-born transsexual people outnumber their female-born brothers by a ratio of 8:1, though she does mention that it is converging. In fact, the ratio is approximately 1:1 and has been for some time. Assumption of the statistic she mentions, however, allows her to further marginalize our female-born brothers by eliminating them from much of her discourse. Like Janice Raymond and other anti-transsexualists, it is the male-born transfolk who are to be the main target of their declamations.

(4) The author also stresses cases in which gender variant people have *lied* and the description of transsexual people as being consumate prevaricators that exists in much of the early literature. Again, given the homophobic and transphobic (Money himself at one time separated transfolk into two groups, one which he labelled "criminal transsexuals") nature of the so-called "care givers," I believe such past licentiousness with our truths at least understandable. It is my hope that more and more of us are forgoing this unfortunate ritual.

(5) I personally found some of the author's use of pronouns while describing gender variant people to be offensive.


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