Reddit Gender Critical
13 April 2018
It’s by Rogers Brubaker, who’s a sociology prof at UCLA, I thought some people here might find it interesting. It’s not a feminist book, or a trans activist one, it’s very ‘neutral’ and mostly tries to attach labels and sociological analysis to the phenomena of moving across identities. He focuses on comparing Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal as test cases who were received very differently in the public eye, and then tries to explain what happened and the larger sociological circumstances underway.
In some ways, the book is maddeningly stupid. He mentions radical feminists who exclude transwomen as akin to nationalists who treat immigrants as second class citizens, and notes that there is no similar pushback against transmen in men’s spaces (not true – I think the second-class immigrant describes transmen’s status quite well among men, feminists reacted to transwomen at first as welcome allies, and then as an invading army). He also marvels at the fact that most transsexuals have historically been male and then concludes that utilitarian goals like seeking privilege therefore can’t be a motivation to transition – without considering that women were historically owned by their male relatives and lacked the self-determination to change identity, or that men might be motivated to leave (or forced out of) male competition and gender conformity, or have sexual motivations (including homosexuality) that complicates their identity formation or leads to a strategic decision.
Really, the book could use a good dose of psychology to talk about how we create identities and why. He also ignores the fairly long history of passing women who passed purely for utilitarian reasons, but did everything they could to blend in to avoid detection.
Despite those failings, it was an interesting read. He tries very hard to be neutral and descriptive so the reader can have a framework for making a critical analysis, and that was interesting indeed once you write back in all the power dynamics he skipped over. For example, he talks about the abuse of racial categorization by whites who go ‘ancestry mining’ and adopt their identity of some distant ancestor to either feel more special, or to abuse this information on college applications or to speak on behalf of other communities. He talks about the history of passing by people of color (but not by women), and differentiates it from passing for identitarian purposes.
I’d really like to see a radfem version of the book, because even as I was reading it I could see missing bits of information and analysis and I’m not a sociology professor. In some ways it highlighted how little people know about the current movement. Nonetheless it left me with a better grasp on a structured analysis for trans identities. For example, you can compare social structures that prop up artificial identities as opportunities for people to transition between those identities, since they already don’t represent reality. The ‘not one drop’ racial rule in the U.S. created a single category of ‘Black’ people who were in fact a vast spectrum of phenotypical expression. Dolezal could ‘pass’ as Black by re-creating a few physical signifiers that qualifies her as a (marginal but valid) member of that group. Very light-skinned Blacks could cut ties, relocate and pass as white – because tying people to a ‘drop’ of ancestry becomes undetectable on a practical level. The same opportunity doesn’t exist on even a practical level for dark-skinned Blacks to exit their classification, and we can therefore analyze the power differential and social impacts created by this behavior.
Similarly, the artificial and performative nature of femininity allows men to take on the signifiers of that performance and say ‘I am performing womanhood, therefore I’m now a woman’. In some cases, this can be compelled onto homosexuals ‘you are acting like a woman sexually, therefore you will be treated as a woman or non-man’. Meanwhile women face huge hurdles under the legal ownership of males, or the physical realities of their relative size or strength, or vulnerability to pregnancy. The impact of hormonal treatment, including birth control, and independent legal status changes the opportunities for women to escape effectively into male identity, what remains to be analyzed is the motivations to do so.