17 June 2015

The Double Bind

This morning, before going for a bike ride, I went to the store.  Along the way, I bumped into someone I hadn’t seen in a while.  She recently completed her Master of Fine Arts degree.  For her thesis, she made multi-media collages that celebrated women’s sexuality.  While she was working on it and taking her classes, she had a job in the same institution where she earned her degree.

She talked about the shame and guilt she had to overcome to do her creative work.  It occurred to me then that women still have to get past the notions that we are tainted and damned simply because we are women and have sexual desires, whatever they may be.  And people denounce us whether or not we express who we are.  Those who tell us that we’re being too conservative or dowdy are the first ones to condemn us for wearing anything that even hints at our sexuality, and those who denounce us for being “too sexy” are the ones who complain that we’re “too boring” when we “tone it down.”

I’m thinking now about Segolene Royal, who lost the French Presidential election to Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007.  She’s been voted “the best-dressed politician in Europe and, while not provocative, does not play down her physical attractiveness.  In response to those who criticized her for that, she’s said, “Who says politicians have to be ugly and boring?”

It occurs to me now that this is one of the dilemmas trans people face all the time.  Those of us who identify as women experience everything I’ve just described and, because we have lived as males, we are probably even less prepared for it than people who’ve lived their entire lives as female.  It even happens to someone like Caitlyn Jenner:  There has been the sort of praise and damnation we’ve come to expect, from the people we’ve come to expect.  But there are also people who’ve criticized her for being too glamorous or, as one female celebrity said only half in jest, “Who does she think she is, looking better than I look?”

Now I realize that this bind women, and trans people in particular, face is one of the things that exacerbated the plight of the Lost Generation of Transgenders to which I’ve alluded in other posts. After gaining some visibility—and even a little support—during the 1960’s and 1970’s, trans people were rendered visible, at best, and vilified, at worst.  As I’ve mentioned,  the more extreme aspects of Second-Wave Feminism—sparked by Janice Raymond’s Transsexual Empire and by other writers, scholars and activists like Mary Daly and Germaine Greer—helped to undo the small gains we made during the previous two decades. 

During the time when we—all right, I’ll say it—were moving with the moment of the nascent Gay Rights movement—trans people were taught to efface all signs of the gender they were assigned at birth and to, in essence, re-invent their pasts.  In brief, we got by (to the degree we did) through induced amnesia and denial.  That, of course, was not a healthy way to live, but it was better than simply being denied and negated altogether.

However, around the same time as Raymond, Daly and their ilk were saying that we were simply men who wanted to take jobs in Women’s Studies departments, there was a “conservative backlash” against whatever gains women, including trans women, made.  Ronald Reagan had been elected; while he is by no means the only cause of the backlash, he at the very least galvanized it.  Although women were becoming lawyers, professors and corporate executives, they were always “under the microscope”:  criticized when they tried to look professional and vilified when they tried to express any kind of personal style.  This actually dovetailed very neatly with Second Wave feminism:  Phyllis Schlafly and Germaine Greer were both saying that womanhood existed only within a very rigid set of boundaries.  What neither Schlafly’s Evangelical Christian conservatives nor Germaine Greer and the Second Wavers never acknowledged, however—or perhaps didn’t realize—is that they were defining womanhood in terms that were set by men long before they or their mothers or grandmothers were born.

The few (at least in comparison to the numbers who came before and after) trans people who decided to live as the people they are during that time were therefore doubly damned.  In addition, the Gay Rights movement focused its attention on the newly-developing HIV/AIDS pandemic—as they should have.  As most of those afflicted at the time were men, HIV/AIDS activism—and, with it, the gay rights movement—became  almost wholly male-centered.  Even lesbians had to subsume their interests and needs; there was almost no room, it seemed, for trans women to simply exist, let alone define ourselves, as a group and individually, and flourish. 

Thus, I think it will be some time before trans women—and women generally—will be able simply to express who we are, sexually and otherwise, and reap the fruits of our labor and talents.  In the meantime, we’re going to be damned—by some people, anyway—whether are or aren’t, can or can’t, will or won’t, do or don’t.

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