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Empires that
won't fall

Empires that
won't fall


A short film was recently pulled from San Francisco's Frameline film festival because it was said to reinforce transphobic stereotypes articulated in Janice Raymond's 1979 book Transsexual Empire. The question is, How has her oversimplified thinking survived?

Janice Raymond is a non-transgender lesbian feminist who was a professor of women's studies at Hampshire College when she wrote the 1979 book Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-male. In her book Raymond completely dismissed the notion that an individual could have a valid belief of being a different gender from the one assigned at birth. And with that as a foundation, Empire advanced the following two stereotypes:

(1) Male-to-female transsexuals are merely male agents of the patriarchy, reinforcing feminine stereotypes; and MTF lesbian feminists are really men masquerading as women so they can invade and dominate women's space.

(2) Female-to-male transsexuals are merely women who have copped out of the women's movement by changing themselves rather than changing society.

The first stereotype is no doubt one reason why the long-running Michigan Womyn's Music Festival maintains a policy, reiterated just last year, of limiting the festival to "womyn-born-womyn." The second stereotype, say detractors, is perpetuated in director Catherine Crouch's short film The Gendercator, which was recently spurned by the San Francisco LGBT film festival Frameline.

Raymond based her book on what was known about transsexualism at the time, which was not much. Empire gave the appearance of providing well-researched insights into a much-unknown population. Her book became part of women's studies curricula and was widely available at feminist booksellers. And because no counterbalancing works had been (or could be) published for years, a whole generation of women has an understanding of transsexuals that's been influenced by Raymond's thinking.

But much has changed since Empire was written.

(1) As depicted in the movie If These Walls Could Talk 2, lesbian feminists in the 1970s found themselves excluded from feminist groups because, as the character Diane puts it, "it's too risky to take on your issues right now." It makes sense that Raymond might therefore have viewed transsexual lesbian feminists as inhibiting acceptance of lesbian feminists by the wider feminist community. Fortunately, postmodern feminists are taking a more inclusive view.

(2) Raymond was alarmed by the opening of more than 20 university gender clinics in the 1970s. She saw this growing "medical conglomerate," which united medical specialties under one roof to "create transsexuals," as the patriarchy's "transsexual empire." However, as trans woman Dallas Denny explained in Transgender Tapestry magazine, the clinics spouted up because treatment until then had been largely unavailable in this country. Most of the university gender clinics had disappeared by the time Denny wrote her piece in 1991, and services today are provided mostly by unaffiliated professionals. So much for the empire.

(3) Empire was correct in asserting that gender clinics reinforced gender-role stereotypes. At the time overwhelmingly male legislatures had made it a crime in many states to impersonate a female. Limiting treatment to those who "passed" in their perceived gender allowed these small clinics to deal with the overwhelming demand and, coincidentally, increased the likelihood of what society would deem a positive outcome. But access to treatment today is gated much more by an ability to pay, as treatment is usually not covered by insurance. Surely the patriarchy would overcome this roadblock if it were truly out to create transsexuals.

(4) Raymond grounded her thinking in part on the research of Johns Hopkins University psychologist John Money. In the 1972 college textbook Man & Woman, Boy & Girl, which he wrote with current Columbia medical psychology professor Anke A. Ehrhardt, it was asserted that social factors lock in a child's gender identity in the first 18 months of life. But this assertion has in recent years been challenged, since some babies born with ambiguous genitalia--some of whom have been surgically "made" female at birth and rigidly raised as girls--choose later to transition to male in order to respond to a strongly held male identity. These cases (which included Money's own star patient) as well as other new research have led to the current thinking that gender identity is more likely set in the womb.

(5) Raymond revealed that she had spoken with only 15 transsexuals, of whom "several...were prostitutes." Because all of our transgender academics at the time were deeply closeted for fear of losing their jobs, we had no voice to challenge Raymond's "research." Today, things are different. When J. Michael Bailey released his 2003 book The Man Who Would Be Queen, based largely on interviews of transsexuals in a gay bar, a number of out trans academics quickly banded together to denounce his sex-obsessed findings and lack of research. Bailey subsequently resigned as chairman of Northwestern University's psychology department.

(6) When Empire was written we did not have visibility to the oppression that transgender people suffer at the hands of the patriarchy. In the 2006 report "50 Under 30: Masculinity and the War on America's Youth,"the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition revealed that 92% of victims of gender-based violence were biologically male but presenting with some degree of femininity, and in cases where the assailant was known, he was always male. Transgender people are clearly not agents of the patriarchy; we are its victims too.

Interestingly, Raymond and the other feminists who have taken transgender people to task over the years have aimed their critiques almost exclusively at male-to-female transsexuals. In her just-released, approachable, and thought-provoking book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, biologist and transsexual lesbian feminist Julia Serano aptly labels this bias "trans-misogyny." Finally, we might have an academic work with the standing to challenge Raymond and get to the heart of the issue.

But really, why do Raymond's offensive stereotypes about transsexuals persist when history has largely absolved us from our accused roles as accomplices of the patriarchy? The irony seems to be that in seeking to eradicate gender-role stereotypes, Janice Raymond actually perpetuated two more.

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