One of the small additions to the Harvard University Health plan this year covers staff and students’ gender-realignment surgery. (In previous years, “top” surgery was covered, this year “bottom” surgery will also be covered.) This is excellent news. Such surgery is very expensive (thus requiring insurance), and it has an overwhelming rate of post-operation satisfaction. In other words, it works: It improves the lives of those who very firmly believe that they are not the gender their body once expressed. For a population with a 41 percent suicide rate, this is incredibly important.
The remarkable success of such surgery is a medical and humanist victory. But interestingly, it presents, at least at the surface, a challenge to some models of traditional feminism. This stems from the contradiction between the idea that people are innately a certain gender and the traditional feminist view that gender is—at least in large part—socially created and imposed. The most famous intellectual proponent of this idea is Judith Butler, who writes in her work “Undoing Gender” that gender is simply “doing, incessantly performed.” In other words, it is not one’s genitalia that make one a particular gender, but rather one’s behavior, constructed through some combination of unconscious absorption of societal standards, embodied performance, and conscious personal choice. Butler’s theory is liberating in many ways. It discards the notion that seemingly effeminate men or masculine women are unnatural or wrong; it opens all avenues of gender-related self-expression to all people. But the existence of transgender people, and the success rate of realignment surgery, does not square with the idea that gender is simply a social and personal construction. If so, why would some people in the same society not be constructed into conformity with their physical form like the rest? Why would they choose to construct themselves as something so agonizingly deviant that it would make them suicidal? Why would surgery almost never cause regret if gender can be constructed and thus re-constructed?
In this sense, the existence of transgender people and the claim of transgender individuals that their gender is something innate could be seen as a threat to feminism. It has, in fact, been taken as such: another famous feminist, Germaine Greer, repeatedly argued in her book “The Whole Woman” that “[a]s sufferers from gender role distress themselves, women must sympathize with transsexuals but a feminist must argue that the treatment for gender role distress is not mutilation of the sufferer but radical change of gender roles.” Transgender people, she argues, must be mentally ill (perhaps as a result of being unable to cope with the confines of traditional gender roles) rather than actually of a different gender.
This approach is destructive because it effectively attacks transgender people and their right to self-definition and in doing so undermines feminism itself. Such an attack is hypocritical for feminists, who argue that women should have the right to define for themselves what it means to be a woman rather than being constrained to patriarchal values. Greer and feminists like her thus claim the right to define their own gender and then immediately deny this right to others. This is the replication or iteration of the same kind of oppression as patriarchy. Greer argues that transsexual people are reverting to restrictive ideas about gender because she sees this idea of gender as innate and potentially oppressive in the same way patriarchal ideas are—but the crucial difference is that transsexuals seek only to define themselves, not to define all women or men in a certain way on the basis of their gender.
How, then, might a feminist reconcile the needs and rights of transsexual people with the concerns of feminism? One option is the approach Judith Butler herself takes. She suggests that “more important than any presupposition about the plasticity of identity or indeed its retrograde status is queer theory’s claim to be opposed to the unwanted legislation of identity.” Most of all, in order to treat others well, we need to allow them to define themselves. The goal of this self-definition is simple: as Butler puts it, everyone ought to be able to “to breathe, to desire, to love and to live.”
If one cannot imagine how gender could be innate, still one has the responsibility to let those who believe theirs is live their lives accordingly and only protest those who prevent one from living one’s own gender in the same autonomous fashion. In doing so, feminists support the freedom to self-define what one’s gender means and align themselves with the underlying and most important principle of both feminist and transsexual thought.
Sarah C. Stein Lubrano ’13, a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House, is spending spring 2012 in Cambridge, United Kingdom. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.