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Gendered Language in Ursula Le Guin’s Gethen Stories

(This article was originally featured in Organise! 72 – Summer -2009)

Science Fiction is at its best when it explores everyday human problems and prejudices through their extrapolation into extreme scenarios; disasters show the best and worst sides of humanity, while dystopias explore the full implications of the political and social impulses that govern us. More unusual, subtler and equally effective, is SF that explores aspects of humanity through their absence. While utopias eradicate society’s problems and dystopias exaggerate them, Le Guin creates, from scratch, ambiguous societies of human aliens who have never experienced problems central to our particular brand of humanity, extrapolates a culture, history and mythology from the inherent differences in socialisation, and goes on to explore the problems that they do have.

With Gethen, Le Guin challenges our world’s social construction of gender and explores its fundamental influence on our notions of identity by creating a world of human hermaphrodites. Unlike us (but in common with most other mammals) they have an oestrus cycle, so that they are only sexually active for a few days each month (known as “kemmer”). A Gethenian may enter this state as male or female, depending on many factors beyond their control, including the state of those kemmering close to them at the time. If a Gethenian conceives, “she” remains female throughout pregnancy and lactation, then returns to a state of “somer” and could be male next kemmer. In somer, Gethenians are without sexual drive and physically androgynous.

This biological and sociological re-imagining of sex brings with it the problem of writing a genderless society in a language that is not equipped to describe genderlessness, for an audience barely equipped to imagine it. The linguistic problem exacerbates the perceptual one, and Le Guin has dealt with this in various ways, with varying degrees of success. Initially, she uses masculine pronouns as neutral – or, at least, views Gethen through a human male character who does so, in the novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). Shortly before this she had published a short story set on Gethen, but had not been aware at the time of the Gethenians’ unusual physiology. She re-wrote this story, Winter’s King, for a 1975 collection, this time using feminine pronouns for all characters while keeping the masculine titles of “King” and “Lord” to retain ambiguity. Eventually, with such deft linguistic gymnastics that the casual reader barely notices, she wrote a Gethen story eschewing the use of gendered pronouns altogether, Coming of Age in Karhide (1995).

I’ll talk first about The Left Hand of Darkness, since this is the first Gethen story that Le Guin wrote with the deliberate intention of making Gethen a world of androgynes. It is not, primarily, a story about gender. It is a story about the politics of small nations, in which a naive envoy from the Ekumen (a sort of research collective of inhabited worlds) is manipulated by factions from rival countries. It is also a story about survival in harsh conditions, and the relationships formed under those conditions. Suspicion and trust, exposure and shelter, solitude and companionship are woven in with themes of duality and oneness, reflected in the envoy Genly Ai’s (and the reader’s) perception of gender as binary, and its contrast in Gethenian sexuality and psychology.

Genly Ai, a Terran and a man, finds it difficult to treat Gethenians as genderless. Early on, he says: “I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes. I tried to, but my efforts took the form of self consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own.”

His difficulty reflects the reader’s, which is made all the more problematic by Le Guin’s (or Ai’s) use of those masculine pronouns. Le Guin has spoken of regretting this decision, and in her introduction to the re-working of Winter’s King she says:“In the third person singular, the English generic pronoun is the same as the masculine pronoun. A fact worth reflecting upon. And it’s a trap, with no way out, because the exclusion of the feminine (she) and the neuter (it) from the generic/masculine (he) makes the use of either of them more specific, more unjust, as it were, than the use of  “he”. And I find made-up pronouns, “te” and “heshe” and so on, dreary and annoying.”

While the decision to use masculine pronouns in LHoD is a submission to that trap, forcing the reader to perceive Gethen as a planet without women, it has another, stranger effect: it makes us actively fight that perception, to try to see the neutral as feminine as well as masculine. It also allows us to feel lulled into a sense of understanding the genderlessness on our own terms, before shocking us with startling incongruities such as: “The King was pregnant” (p. 73).

Like Ai, we force ourselves to view each character, by turns, as both male and female. Often, of course, the language (and our own cultural identification) forces us to view important and recurring characters as male, and this prejudice is used narratively – Ai’s mistrust of Estraven, his major ally in Karhide, springs from his inability to read “him”, to work out his motives and goals, and he especially hates the characteristics he perceives as feminine, dismissing subtle warnings and cautions as “effeminate deviousness” (p.17).

Ai’s unconscious, internalised gender prejudices are dangerously irrelevant on Gethen, and only when Estraven kemmers as female does he realise how great his mistake was. He has been judging Estraven according to his expectations of male behaviours, misreading a protective and loyal ally as a manipulative politician, with a mistrust coming partly from Estraven’s aloofness and stringent observation of shifgrether (a system of status and etiquette that equates openly offering advice with dire insult), but mainly from Ai’s inability to see him as both a man and a woman and neither.

This cultural confusion extends to Ai’s and previous Ekumen investigators’ view of Gethenian culture and history. We are told that there has never been a full-blown war on Gethen, yet the feuding  nations that we see – a paranoid monarchy with a mad king, and an authoritarian communist state with forced labour camps – are far from utopian. The nation of Karhide is described early on as “not a nation but a family squabble” (p.12). Ai speculates that Gethenians, while capable of the same aggression and cruelty as other humans, lack the capacity to mobilise. He says, with characteristic simplicity: “They behaved like animals in that respect; or like women. They did not behave like men, or ants.” (p.39) An account from an earlier Ekumen investigator theorises that the Ancient Hainish (who seeded all human-inhabited worlds) created Gethenians as a genetic experiment with the deliberate aim of eliminating war: “Did the Ancient Hainish postulate that continuous sexual capacity and organized social aggression, neither of which are attributes of any mammal but man, are cause and effect? Or […] did they consider war to be a purely masculine displacement-activity, a vast Rape, and therefore in their experiment eliminate the masculinity that rapes and the femininity that is raped?”

This hypothesis does not go unchallenged, though. In the grip of a long ice age, Gethen is known to the rest of the Ekumen worlds as “Winter”; cold and starvation have had as much influence on the moulding of Gethenian society as has genderlessness, and which of these forces are responsible for Gethen’s unique characteristics, we are left to guess.

The same researcher speculates that the lack of sexual frustration or competition (since all are released from other duties for kemmer, and nobody is barred from the kemmerhouse) dulls ambition and slows technological progress, but again this is left open to the possibility that survival of the intense cold is a factor.

Technological progress happens slowly and steadily on Gethen. Large communal buildings stand for thousands of years, being repaired rather than demolished and replaced. Their greatest technological marvel is a highly efficient camping stove that can heat a tent for months on a single fuelling, but they have very few powered vehicles and no flight (with no flying animals to inspire

it). Resources are not wasted on anything but food and warmth. Travel is undertaken on foot, or by catching a supply vehicle headed in the same direction. Gethenians don’t rush to reach any destination, physical or technological – they get where they’re going without hurrying. Even the perilous journey across the ice that constitutes the second half of the story, compelled as it is by the need to arrive before supplies run out, is slow-paced and careful, with more development of  character and setting than action or plot. Despite the lack of pace, the novel makes gripping reading. Each new discovery about the nature of Gethenian physiology and society, each shift of perception in the complex relationship between friends and aliens, every unexpected word and phrase connects theme to plot to character, and these quiet, thoughtful interactions are more riveting than any hectic chase over thin ice.

The revised Winter’s King demonstrates the reasons why Le Guin chose not to use feminine pronouns as neutral in The Left Hand of Darkness. Not only is the feminine more specific, but instead of giving the impression of a planet without men (as the opposite tactic implied the absence of women) it seems to suggest only that the characters important enough to have their movements described – the King, the palace officials and politicians – are female, while those mentioned too briefly for a pronoun to be necessary (staff and subjects) remain male by default. Because the use of the feminine rather than the masculine is being reconsidered, the neutral escapes consideration altogether. As in LHoD, the reader struggles against these perceptions, as King Argaven struggles against the mindforming aimed at manipulating her rule, but it is a harder struggle to see she as neutral than he, and the overall effect is not of androgynes but of a world ruled by women using masculine titles. It is a good antidote to the use of male as neutral, a challenge to the reader’s perceptions and the writer’s skill at manipulating them, but since thealiens’ sexual difference to Gethenians isn’t made explicit until two thirds of the way through the story, there is no real sense of androgyny in the characters. That said, the failure at androgyny leads, at least, to seeing more women than men, which is unusual enough to be worth the experiment.

The story, remaining relatively unchanged from its original version, has echoes of Semley’s Necklace in its concern with the incongruities of time and long distance space travel, but is most interesting for what it tells us about the Gethenian techniques of brainwashing – which they call “mindforming” and the Hainish “mindscience”. This is a huge contrast from the Foretelling of the Handdara, the more spiritually-inclined (yet still scientifically founded) psychic ability glimpsed in the other Gethen stories, and may go some way towards explaining why so many of the kings of Karhide are  completely insane.

In contrast to both previous stories, Coming of Age in Karhide has no kings or politicians and is set amongst working people in an ordinary Hearth (a communal dwelling of around 200 people). This is a return to Gethen after around 25 years, for both for the writer and the planet. Le Guin chooses a completely different voice for this story: an open and intelligent Gethenian narrator looking back, with honesty and humour, on the experiences of adolescence. Since the narrator is using personal experience, and speaking in the first person, there is little need for gendered pronouns, and where other characters are spoken of they are either mentioned by name or cunningly pluralised to evade gendered pronouns, save for explicit uses to describe kemmering status.This careful consideration of language provides a very different viewpoint to previous Gethen stories, but nevertheless the characters emerge from the page gendered, perhaps more readily so as the reader has no consciously inappropriate gendered pronouns to challenge. The narrator, Sov, by intimately describing of the aches, pains, clumsiness and shame of puberty, including the first experience of menstruation, cannot help but come over as female, especially since we are left to hear all the anxieties regarding uncontrollable urges and awkward erections from Sov’s taller, moodier friend Sether. Their conversation, though they are comparing and confirming symptoms that they are both experiencing, reads like a girl and a boy talking, her with shyness and gentle reassurance, him with angry, humiliated outbursts at the unfairness and inhumanity of it all.

The whispered fears of the two adolescents include losing control in kemmer and committing rape, putting in doubt the Ekumen investigator’s assertion that rape is a physical impossibility for Gethenians – never that convincing, since we know from LHoD that drugs exist to stimulate or suppress kemmer, and are used by government agents in Orgoreyn to seduce spies and pacify prisoners. Sether relates a friend-of-a-friend story about a rape that took place when two truck drivers were cut off by snow and one kemmered as male. Sov is shocked, never having heard such things were possible. The story might be an exaggeration, as adolescent rumours about sex so often are, but it seems more likely that such incidents are taboo and that an alien researcher would have had difficulty uncovering them.

This fear of being made inhuman by kemmer may be due, in part, to  the characters’ awareness of aliens and of their own uniqueness amongst other human races; they are afraid of the animalistic qualities of the kemmer cycle, that it will be like going into heat or rut, while also ashamed that, in kemmer, they become more like the grotesque aliens, who they equate with a hormonal imbalance towards male or female that causes some Gethenians to remain in a permanent state of kemmer. These people are stigmatised as “perverts” and, more tellingly, “half-deads” (indicating, perhaps, that the stigma is not in the permanence of their sexual state but in their lifelong limitation to only one physical sex). We hear of their existence in LHoD, as Genly Ai is often mistaken for one, but hear more in this story of the fear and fascination they evoke in other Gethenians. They are variously mistrusted and pitied, but not excluded from kemmerhouses – in fact, they often live in and run them, this being one of the few roles Gethenian society deems acceptable for those whose identity and sexuality are so conflated.

These various viewpoints, with their linguistic limitations, may not quite allow us to see genderlessness as the Gethenians do, but they do allow for some striking observations that can shock us out of assumptions we didn’t realise we were making. One of the best is this advice from an early Ekumen investigator on Gethen:“The First Mobile, if one is sent, must be warned that unless he is very self-assured, or senile, his pride will suffer. A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.”

It is both amusing and uncomfortable to be reminded how much we have invested in gender identity, and how manipulatively seductive those heteronormative and patriarchal behaviours can be, even to those directly harmed by them. While it is tempting for any anarchist, feminist or LGBT activist to see a world lacking gender divisions as a form of utopia, Le Guin’s transitions to alternative societies are never that simple – there are no utopias, and the removal of one fundamental source of privilege on our world provides no easy answer to all the rest. The binary division of society into male and female is not replaced by another single, overwhelming binary, but by a multitude of smaller systems of status and hierarchy shifgrethor being the most visible of these, stigmatisation of a sexual minority the most familiar. Le Guin uses Gethen not to answer the problem of gender but to provoke further questions on the nature of identity and prejudice. When Ai asks Estraven if Gethenians are as obsessed with wholeness as Terrans with duality, he replies: “We are dualists too. Duality is an essential, isn’t it? So long as there is myself and the other.” (p.159)

Perhaps we will remain unable to truly deconstruct gender until we can deconstruct the language that we use to reinforce it every day. Dreary and annoying as those replacement pronouns may be, perhaps a story using the Gethenian pronouns (whose existence is implied in LHoD) to describe those in somer, those in kemmer as female, those in kemmer as male, female animals, male animals and (prusumably) inanimate objects would better portray the people of Gethen, and I would love to see Le Guin take up that experiment.Which pronouns would better portray the Terrans remains an experiment for us all.

Editions used:

Le Guin, Ursula, The Left Hand of Darkness, 1973 (Panther, Herts.)

Le Guin, Ursula, ‘Winter’s King’, in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, 2000 (Gollancz, London)

Le Guin, Ursula, ‘Coming of Age in Karhide’, in The Birthday of the World and Other Stories, 2003 (Gollancz, London)

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Rest in Power, Ursula

“What is an anarchist? One who, choosing, accepts the responsibility of choice.”

Laia Odo, The Day Before the Revolution by Ursula Le Guin

In the days following the announcement of Ursula Le Guin’s death, my social media feeds were full of articles, posts and tweets calling her various versions of “the mother of literary Science Fiction”, praising her for “transcending genre” and implying that she single-handedly remoulded Sci-Fi from a swamp of Boys’ Own space adventures into the diverse and politically complex exploration of human society and its potential that causes so much anguish to Alt-Right whiners today. It’s a nice sentiment, but I don’t think she would have agreed.

While her anthropological, roots-up world-building certainly helped to broaden the scope of SF (and the demographics of its protagonists), Le Guin would have had no truck with that false dichotomy of the serious, socially conscious New Wave vs. pulpy Space Opera. Her stories have their roots in both. She cut her teeth on the pulp magazines and never dodged the SF label, even when it was a dire insult. While Margaret Atwood, for many years, was cagey about being called either a feminist or a Science Fiction writer, Le Guin always wore both those badges with pride and defended them to all comers (ultimately talking Atwood around to at least one of them). She didn’t turn Science Fiction into serious social commentary; her extraordinarily detailed worlds and breath-taking prose just underlined that it always had been. Which is a much greater and more ambitious achievement – not saying “Look at me, creating a new way of doing things” but “Look at yourself and the familiar things you think you know, and see them in a new way.”

That’s the message I take away from her work, the fiction and essays and the writing workshops I’ve used so often – alone or with students – and learned so much from, again and again. That’s the anarchism I take away from The Dispossessed and The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas and Unlocking the Air and Solitude and Four Ways to Forgiveness and Always Coming Home – so many ways to revolution, but it always starts with seeing the world as it is and then imagining it can be different. That’s what the best SF always does, and that’s what Le Guin did so incredibly well.

It might not be exactly true to say that Ursula Le Guin made me an anarchist, but she certainly made me the anarchist that I am. Sure, I read Bakunin and Kropotkin and Goldman and Parsons. I read about the Haymarket Martyrs and the Kronstadt Rebellion. I read William Morris’ News from Nowhere and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. But The Dispossessed was the first thing that made me really believe in an anarchist society – not just political “I agree with this!” belief, but visceral “If I squint, I can see it, I can see how it would work!” belief, that sense that another world really is possible: not an idealist vision of a perfect world with no failings, but an all-round vision of a robust, human society that can absorb a little failure and survive it and grow and keep on developing. I will always be grateful for that vision.

Rest in Power, Ursula. May you be reborn on Anarres.

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Statement following London Anarchist Bookfair of October 2017

The following statement was originally posted on the Anarchist Federation Facebook page on 20/11/2017 (Transgender Day of Rememberance). A earlier statement was posted on www.afed.org.uk on 30/10/2017 immediately following the transphobic leafleting at the London Anarchist Bookfair of 28th October 2017 and is available below [1]. Other statements include one by Edinburgh AF which was on their noflag hosted site edinburghanarchists.noflag.org.uk and can be found on ainfos via the link below[2], also published immediately after the bookfair.

Statement from members of the Anarchist Federation

The basic human dignity of being able to choose or express who we are should not be an issue within the anarchist movement. Transgender/non-binary people should never be subjected to abuse or mischaracterisation in anarchist spaces/events by TERFs (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists) or anyone else – anarchists do not tolerate bigotry in the guise of free-speech. It is very rarely that anarchists attempt to shut down debate or resort of physical or verbal violence to do so. If trans activists feel they have little choice but to resort to this in an anarchist space/event, that is a crisis for our movement.

The AF regrets that the opportunity has probably been lost to transform the London Anarchist Bookfair – which in recent years has developed into one of the most important and representative anarchist events globally – into an environment where this situation cannot not reoccur. Whilst the right of people to choose their gender identity is not up for debate, discussion about the relationship between different oppressions and their relationship to the wider class struggle are nonetheless important.

The class struggle and the struggles of specifically oppressed groups under capitalism do not run parallel with each other, but overlap. Our movement can only benefit from education and engagement with the issues effecting trans-people in the context of where the overlap happens, just as it must improve and advance its theory and action in relationship to all oppressions.

Where legal reforms will improve the material situation of trans-people under capitalism, workers with gender privilege must support them as part of the wider social and economic struggle. But this can only take place meaningfully in an environment which automatically defends the starting point that we are who we say we are, and where the imbalance of power which we bring into the movement from wider society is acknowledged and undermined as far as possible.

(Since initially sharing this statement the LABC has unfortunatly confirmed that they will not be organising a bookfair in London  for 2018. their statement can be found at www. anarchistbookfair.org.uk)

1. http://afed.org.uk/afed-trans-action-faction-statement-in-response-to-events-at-london-anarchist-bookfair-2017/

2. http://www.ainfos.ca/en/ainfos35997.html

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I’m Not Even Going to Try to Pass

I walked into the activist meeting feeling good. I had on my short shorts over tights and my makeup was good. I took my seat next to a stranger, a transwoman.

“Are you in transition?” she asked me. Like, within thirty seconds. I genuinely think this was the first thing she said to me after maybe telling me her name.

“Well, I, uh…” I stammered.

“Have you started hormones yet?”

I stammered some more.

I get it. She was new to the group and excited to see another transfeminine face in the crowd. But goddam is that some personal shit to ask a girl within a minute of meeting her.

I didn’t really answer her in the moment, but let me answer her first question more concretely now: I am “in transition” in the same way that I used to be a baby and one day I’ll be dead.

I am “in transition” in the same way that I used to be a baby and one day I’ll be dead.

Until I got asked questions that assumed I’m not yet where I ought to be, I’d been feeling good about how I looked as I was, right then. I didn’t need to look more like a ciswoman. Who cares about a little bit of beard shadow? Until I save up what I need to get it lasered off, it helps define my jawline and compliments dark makeup well.

Maybe one day I’ll “pass” as a ciswoman. I doubt it. That can’t be my goal. That goal would destroy me.

Society doesn’t care if I pass, I don’t think. What they care about is that I look like I’m trying. Which leaves me two options: pass or fail.

I don’t want to play that game at all.

* * *
An acquaintance of mine, who was loved dearly by people I love, was a transwoman named Feral Pines. She died in the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland last December. She died doing something I also do: playing electronic music in a weirdo DIY venue. Sometimes, when people you know die, you selfishly think about your own mortality.

A few evenings later, the night before my 34th birthday, I was thinking about Feral’s death and life. It was the last night of my early thirties. I’m getting older. All I could think was: “Oh god, I don’t want to die a boy.”

I came out to friends and family the next day.

* * *
A pretty common conversation I’ve had over the years, as I’ve publicly mused about transitioning (there’s that word again; I guess I use it myself), goes like this:

“Margaret, you shouldn’t transition, because you’re a handsome man but you’d make a kind of ugly woman, no offense.”

Sometimes I have that same conversation with myself.

Sometimes I have it with myself daily for months and I stress eat and mope and think unpleasant thoughts. Then I remember that I am what I am and dammit isn’t the point of punk to not give a fuck about what society expects me to look like, to act like, to consider beautiful?

To quote the CrimethInc poster, “Beauty must be defined as what we are, or else the concept itself is our enemy.”

* * *
It was easy to come out to my friends. I can filter my friends by their reactions. Anyone who has trouble with me as a transwoman isn’t my friend. It’s that simple.

Around my friends, in both anarchist and science fiction spaces, being a non-passing trans person scarcely even marks me as different. I might be the only one at any given party — though I doubt it — and I’m sure it colors people’s reactions to me to some degree, but overall it’s a non-issue. I’m fairly certain I’m known more as Margaret-who-writes-sci-fi or Margaret-who-almost-never-comes-to-meetings-and-when-she-does-she’s-sort-of-grumpy and not as Margaret-the-trans-girl-who-doesn’t-pass-for-shit.

It was harder to come out to my family.

I want to be clear: while it’s not the easiest thing they’ve ever dealt with, my family has been supportive.

But it’s with them that I feel the most pressure to look like I’m trying to pass. This pressure is almost entirely in my own head; my family doesn’t ask me when I’m going to start hormones or anything like that. But there’s really only one trans narrative that has broken into mainstream understanding — that of the person trapped in the wrong body, who needs to physically transition — and I find myself wanting to be legible to the people that I love. I want to be dealing with something that they can understand. I want them to be able to talk to their friends and have their friends get it.

That probably won’t happen.

* * *
For the first several months after I came out, I was a wreck. My self-esteem was through the floor. As soon as I judged myself by feminine beauty standards, everything went to shit.

Cisfeminine people deal with this too, of course. I find myself thinking “my shoulders are too broad” or “my waist is too square with my hips” or “my stomach isn’t flat” and those thoughts — or comparable ones — have run through the mind of every woman I know. Feminine beauty standards are absurd. It’s just that I’m newer to dealing with them.

There’s a specific kind of monstrosity that is the transwoman, though. A passing transwoman is a monster because she’s a deceiver. A non-passing transwoman is a monster because she is a pitiful, shameful being, a lost soul forever trapped in body limbo.

Without even realizing it, I fell into believing that about myself.

I snapped out of it, eventually. I don’t want to look like I’m trying and failing to be something I’m not. I just want to look like myself, whatever “myself” is at any given time.

There are probably steps I’m going to take to feminize my body, but all my money is going straight into my teeth these days, so it’s hard for me to even consider anything that requires financial investment. I think about feminization the same way that I think about future tattoos. I’m not not-myself because I don’t yet have the city of Hronople tattooed on my left thigh. I’m not not-myself because I still grow thick black hair on that same thigh.

* * *
There’s no reason for me to believe that my experience is typical of, or generalizable to, transwomen as a whole. I would never tell you that all transwomen can or should share this attitude about transition. The trans narrative that has broken into the mainstream did so by hard work and spilled blood, and it’s only holding on by the same. I am in complete solidarity with my trans sisters who choose to go whatever route.

* * *
There’s something dangerous but also entertaining about standing in front of a urinal in the men’s room while wearing fishnets and a miniskirt. For the time being, that’s what I’ll be doing, because people don’t tend to read me as trans.

When my friends or family “she” me in front of strangers, it’s going to continue to cause confusion because I don’t often wear the opaque foundation it would take to both hide my beard shadow and tell the world that I am jumping through the proper hoops to be accepted.

Many people are just going to outright not believe or understand me when I refer to myself as a woman. That’s fine. I’m probably not going to bother trying to convince society at large who I am. It’s too much work and it’s too self-destructive. I didn’t live this long iconoclastically to waste my time with shit like that now. My friends know me as “she,” my family knows me as “she.” I get to write my own bios in my books, so I’ll continue to publish as “she.” People will either accept it or they won’t.

Margaret Killjoy is a transfeminine author and editor currently based in the Appalachian mountains. Her most recent book is an anarchist demon hunters novella called The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion, published by Tor.com. She spends her time crafting and complaining about authoritarian power structures and she blogs at birdsbeforethestorm.net.

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Transphobia is a Class Issue

[Content warning: In addition to transphobia in the abstract, this piece discusses harassment, violence and abuse. Some sources linked to for reference purposes feature transphobic abuse and slurs.]

Transphobia is a class issue. By this I mean that in a class society that is also deeply transphobic, it is impossible to talk about transphobia in a meaningful way without also talking about class. Trans people are more likely, all other things being equal, than our cis peers to fall into the most exploited and oppressed sections of the working class and the extent to which transphobia will negatively affect any given trans person’s life will be mediated by their economic class. This article is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis of every aspect of this issue, but to contribute to an ongoing conversation around it and illustrate a class struggle perspective on transgender issues.

By transphobia I mean two related phenomena:

  1. Overt, intentional hostility to or disregard towards the wellbeing of trans people and;
  2. Social structures and systems which put trans people at a relative disadvantage to cis people within society.

These two types of transphobia are not strictly distinct and one often creates or reinforces the other.

Often when discussing transphobia popular discourse focuses on overt, interpersonal hostility and street level violent hate crime. While these are indeed real and very serious issues, this focus on the interpersonal and the overt often leads to a failure to recognise the measurable economic effects of transphobia on trans lives. This constitutes a form of hidden, endemic, systematic violence against working class trans people.

A 2015 EU report[1] found that trans people in the EU were more likely than their cis peers to be in the bottom 25% of earners and that around a third of trans people reported experiencing workplace discrimination in the year leading up to the survey and a similar proportion had experienced discrimination while looking for housing. Unsurprisingly, given high levels of workplace discrimination and general social stigma, trans people are disproportionately more likely to experience unemployment. Emma Rundall carried out a survey of trans people as part of her 2010 PhD thesis[2] and found that 14% of respondents were unemployed, around two and a half times the then national unemployment rate (pp 139 of thesis), this is consistent with a general trend in the literature for higher rates of unemployment amongst trans people.

Housing discrimination and high rates of family rejection and abuse also lead to higher rates of homelessness for LGBTQ people as a whole and particularly LGBTQ youth. A 2015 report by the Albert Kennedy Trust [3] found that LGBTQ youth were “grossly over-represented within youth homeless populations”, stating that one in four young homeless people were LGBTQ, the report also found that a majority of young LGBTQ homeless people reported rejection or abuse at home as a major factor in their homelessness, with an overwhelming majority of housing providers failing to recognise the unique and specific needs of this marginalised community for housing support. Specific figures for trans people alone in the UK are difficult to find, however in Canada, a culturally similar developed nation, the research and community organisation Trans Pulse carried out a study of health outcomes in 123 trans people aged 16-24[4], with a view to measuring the effect of parental support. All respondents reporting “strongly supportive” parents reported being adequately housed, however, almost half of the two thirds of respondents who did not have strongly supportive parents were “inadequately housed” (homeless or in a precarious housing situation), around one third of the total sample.

As well as the economic effects of transphobia itself, we can also consider the intersections of transphobia and class, i.e. the ways in which class and transphobia interact and magnify each others’ effects; the greater financial resilience of the middle and boss classes, the ability of wealthier trans people to buy their way out of some forms of transphobia, the classed nature of the bureaucracies that trans people are often forced to navigate and the elevation of privileged voices within the broader trans community as the authentic voices of all trans people.

A core component of transphobia at present is medical gatekeeping, the process by which trans people are forced to jump through semi-arbitrary hoops in order to access certain kinds of trans specific healthcare. In Sex Educations: Gendering and Regendering Women[5] Lisa Milbank discusses real life experience (RLE), a period of time in which trans people are expected to present “full time” as their gender in order to access certain kinds of healthcare, as a form of socially enforced “breaking” in which trans women are subjected to “an experience of public freakhood, composed of constant stares, transphobic harassment and potentially violence, without access to much of the (intensely double-edged) training given to cissexual women on how to survive this”, while Milbank focuses on the experience of transsexual women in particular, this also applies to some extent to the experience of other trans people. One’s ability to pass as cis (to be read by most people as a cis person of one’s appropriate gender) will heavily influence the extent to which RLE is a dangerous and potentially traumatic experience. Since passing as cis takes the form, in part, of being able to perform conventional cis norms, which are themselves heavily classed (and racialised), a trans person’s ability to do so will be mediated by their class status. I.e. the wealthier a person is, the more likely they are to be able to afford to take additional, elective steps (extensive hair removal, specialised clothing to hide or accentuate particular gendered body traits, etc.) to increase their chance of passing as cis. In this way, middle class and boss class trans people are more easily able to navigate gatekeeping in order to access healthcare and sidestep the harmful effects of RLE in a transphobic society. Similarly, since transphobia often takes the form of institutional and economic discrimination and/or family and community rejection, an individual trans person’s financial security becomes their ability to cope with isolation financially and to remove themselves from harmful situations (e.g. a neighbourhood in which they are frequently harassed or a family home in which they are rejected or abused) is key to their ability to survive and thrive in a transphobic society. While all trans people experience and are harmed by transphobia, the extent of that harm will inevitably be strongly classed.

To live as a trans person in today’s society is to frequently find ourselves bumping against the various bureaucracies that serve as its basis, from things as theoretically simple as changing one’s legal name to navigating the complaints procedures of government departments or companies in order to secure some kind of accountability for another instance of transphobia. While this is, in theory, something anybody can learn to do, these bureaucratic institutions are complex and exclusionary by design and often function to favour middle class people. In this way, yet again working class trans people suffer an additional burden from transphobia.

So given that trans people are disproportionately more likely to live in poverty and transphobia’s worst effects are experienced most by working class people, why is this not a part of the media discourse on trans people? Why are some of the most prominent media trans voices wealthy, right wing figures like Caitlyn Jenner? Part of this is precisely because transphobia is strongly classed; as discussed above the wealthiest people will find it easiest to “pass” and meet the standards of conformity to cis-heteronormative standards expected of professional voices in the media. Equally it is the case that middle class and rich trans people are simply more likely to have the necessary connections to be a major media presence. Where it includes trans voices at all, mainstream discourse on trans issues is dominated by an unrepresentative minority of wealthy, white, middle class, trans women. It would be remiss of me not to note an obvious irony here since, while I am far from wealthy and never have been, as a white postgrad student I am myself far from representative of the majority of trans people and, in my defence, I do not claim to be.

A common means of dismissing trans people’s attempts to raise issues that affect us or criticise institutions or public figures that have harmed us as a group is to dismiss us as privileged. Trans people are a bunch of middle class kids or a load of wealthy university students who are just looking for something to complain about. For example, after the well-established journalist Suzanne Moore went on a bizarre, transphobic tirade on Twitter[6] in response to criticism over the wording in one of her articles, fellow career journalist Julie Burchill wrote a piece, initially published in the Observer but eventually withdrawn and then republished by Spiked[7], which while largely consisting of a series of transphobic slurs also perfectly illustrated this ideological tendency. After claiming that she and other transphobic journalists are “part of the tiny minority of women of working-class origin to make it in what used to be called Fleet Street”, Burchill goes on to depict trans people as academics with “big swinging PhDs”, attempting to silence working class cis women by arguing about “semantics” (the semantics in this case being Moore’s use of “Brazilian transsexuals”, a group plagued by particularly high levels of poverty and violence[8], as a throwaway pejorative). While trans academics certainly exist, we are far from the majority of trans people or even trans activists, nor are we necessarily as highly privileged as Burchill would like to suggest. By engaging in this erasure of working class trans people, transphobes are able to both trivialise the serious, material effects of transphobia as discussed above and rhetorically exclude trans people from the working class.

In her excellent 2008 essay ‘Liberal Multiculturalism is the Hegemony – Its an Empirical Fact’ – A response to Slavoj Žižek[9], Sara Ahmed points out that racism is often projected onto the white working class, with liberal prohibitions on overt bigotry serving merely as a means to locate bigotry in some marginalised other. We see a similar process with transphobia, bigotry against trans people is positioned as definitively working class, and thus the existence of working class trans people can be ignored as impossible by definition. A well paid Observer journalist can mock trans people en masse as middle class kids, obsessed with identity politics, because everybody knows that real working class people are white, cishet and hostile to anybody who is not white or cishet. The reality, of course, is that this image of an “ordinary” working class as the default is a fantasy, the working class is a weird, wonderful and diverse class and only a politics that recognises the many and varied ways in which we experience exploitation and oppression can allow us to build a movement to end oppression, end exploitation and ultimately abolish class itself. ■

Citations;

  1. European Union Agency For Fundamental Rights. Being Trans in the European Union: Comparative analysis of EU LGBT survey data (2014).
  2. Rundall, E. C. (2010). ‘Transsexual’ people in UK workplaces: An analysis of transsexual men’s and transsexual women’s experiences. PhD Thesis. Oxford Brookes University.
  3. The Albert Kennedy Trust. LGBT youth homelessness: A UK national scoping of cause, prevalence, response, and outcome.(2015).
  4. Trans Pulse.. Impacts of Strong Parental Support for Trans Youth (2012).
  5. Milbank, L. www.radtransfem.wordpress.com. Sex Educations: Gendering and Regendering Women (2012) – Retrieved March 2018.
  6. Archive.today. Suzanne Moore: timeline of trans-misogynistic twitter rant. Available at www. archive.is/cZGpC – Retrieved March 2018.
  7. Burchill, J. Hey Trannies cut it out (2013). SPIKED. Available at www.archive.is/XVrUP – Retrieved March 2018.
  8. Beresford, Meka. One LGBT person is killed every 25 hours in Brazil (2017). PINK NEWS. Available athttps://www.pinknews.co.uk/2017/01/28/one-lgbt-person-is-killed-every-25-hours-in-brazil/ – Retrieved March 2018.
  9. Ahmed, S. ‘Liberal Multiculturalism is the Hegemony – Its an Empirical Fact’ – A response to Slavoj Žižek (2008) Dark Matter. Available at http://www.darkmatter101.org/site/2008/02/19/%E2%80%98liberal-multiculturalism-is-the-hegemony-%E2%80%93-its-an-empirical-fact%E2%80%99-a-response-to-slavoj-zizek/ – Retrieved March 2018.