Queer Theory is Sexy

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The Body and Social Power: Trans* folk, women, and the institutional forces that invade their bodies

    But the body is also directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs. This political investment of the body is bound up, in accordance with complex reciprocal relations, with its economic use; it is largely as a force of production that the body is invested with relations of power and domination; but, on the other hand, its constitution as labour power is possible only if it is caught up in a system of subjection (in which need is also a political instrument meticulously prepared, calculated and used); the body becomes a useful force only if it is both a productive body and a subjected body. This subjection is not only obtained by the instruments of violence or ideology; it can also be direct, physical, pitting force against force, bearing on material elements, and yet without involving violence; it may be calculated, organized, technically thought out; it may be subtle, make use of neither weapons nor of terror and yet remain of a physical order. That is to say, there may be a ‘knowledge’ of the body that is not exactly the science of its functioning, and a mastery of its forces that is more than the ability to conquer them: this knowledge and this mastery constitute what might be called the political technology of the body.

-Michel Foucault; Discipline and Punish

So this blog lately has been heavy on the queer and light on the theory, so I wanted to talk a bit about Foucault, social power, and how bodies today are affected by the play of forces that Foucault so eloquently describes. Specifically, I want to discuss, separately, the bodies of trans* individuals and of women. A lot of what I say here is still in the brainstorming process, so don’t hate me if I say something outrageous. I do tend to get carried away with this shit.

So let’s get started. First of all, I should make clear that, while there are many similarities in Foucault’s analysis of imprisonment, forms of punishment, criminality, and judicial systems of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries of Europe, and my own discussion of trans* folk and women, there are a few key differences. You’ll notice that Foucault frames his analysis in terms of economic production. This is because, in discussing a prison population, his concern was with a wide ranging population, considered deviant in various ways, that was subjugated and transformed into a productive apparatus, both economically and scientifically. However, what I want to focus on is the latter, the ‘knowledge’ basis of subjugation that is necessary for the economic usefulness of the political body (I’ll explain all these terms in a moment). This is because, while a framework for analysis of a population that is incarcerated in specific institutions and that experiences overt mechanisms of control of the body is not immediately applicable to the topic of trans* and women’s bodies, there are analogous issues of control, knowledge, and social power that are worth discussing in this context.

Now, a bit on Foucault’s vocabulary. “Technology,” as in “the political technology of the body” does not mean computers, gadgets, iPhones, or automobiles—what we commonly associate with technology. It is not a physical technology we’re talking about here (although it is manifest in physical ways and makes use of physical means of control and transformation), but a conceptual scheme that allows for the production or certain outcomes in individuals. Technologies are a way of organizing the world, both conceptually and physically, and thus the knowledge-power confluence that Foucault is so famous for.

In his lectures at the College De France from 1974-1975 (collected and published under the title Abnormal, Picador, New York), Foucault traces the development of psychology during the 17th-19th centuries into the study of abnormality. From the figure of the monster in the 17th century to the 19th century obsession with masturbation, psychology gradually became more and more intertwined with social deviance, criminality, and the judicial system, to the point where every criminal act was a sign of mental illness, and every mental illness carried with it the potential for social danger and harm. This new knowledge-power that psychology suddenly found thrust upon it by the judicial system, which was in search of expert scientific opinions in legal cases, played out in myriad ways: new technologies of surveillance around the bodies of children (to prevent masturbation), a new construction of the nuclear family, new education systems, and of course, new institutions of incarceration.

It is this combination of psychology, judicial powers, medical establishments, and the social forces that create and are created, effect and are effected by them, that I want to apply to the topic of trans* bodies and women’s bodies.

There are a ton of issues I could talk about here. Trans bodies are the subject of myriad social forces: both the trans* individual’s use of their body to develop and express their gender-identity, and the social powers that weigh down trans* bodies, resist their ability to change, and pollute them with negative social meanings. This happens in many non-institutionalized ways, such as the rape and sexual assault that trans* people constantly face, the questions cis individuals ask trans* people (“Wait, so does that mean you have like, both kinds of junk?” “So how do you have sex?” “But how can you be a guy if you’re not into chicks?”), and families/parishes/communities rejecting trans* people because of their identities. However, it is useless to talk about these “non-institutionalized” social attitudes and behaviors in isolation from the institutions that are formed by them and perpetuate them. In fact, even before these specific versions of social and physical violence against trans* folk existed (before there was a specific trans* subculture that people could be threatened by or identify with), the ideas about sex and gender that are at their root had been enthroned in various institutions for centuries.

So how do psychology, medicine, and the judicial system enthrone anti-trans* heteronormative ideals and convert them into a social power that disempowers trans folk? Pepper over at freaksexual has the following to say on this:

Another threat to the gender dichotomy (and thus to men’s power over women) are transgender and genderqueer identities, and intersex people. The medical establishment fights this threat through a whole host of procedures and regulations. Doctors routinely “correct” intersex conditions in newborns, often without even consulting the family or getting their consent. Getting a mastectomy for health reasons is straightforward, but getting a mastectomy simply because you want one is incredibly difficult and generally requires the approval of multiple mental health practitioners. As Julia Serano points out in Whipping Girl, while there has been a medical route for hormones and sex reassignment surgery since the 60′s, the primary purpose of this medical route has been to regulate (in other words, deny) such techniques as much as possible, and to enforce normative gender standards on those who are approved.

(The Historical Medicalization of Sexuality, Oct. 8, 2007)

There’s a lot to break down in this quote. The first thing to note is how Pepper relates anit-trans* attitudes to the patriarchical gender hierarchy. In a recent post I discussed how different forms of heteronormativity are mutually-reinforcing, and how it’s bad news for queer folk if the LGBT movement continues to only focus on dismantling specific aspects of heteronormative culture (that post is also a rant about a specific instance of discrimination I faced from LGBT individuals; skip to the bottom for the relevant bits about different heteronormative ideals). This can help to explain why anti-trans* attitudes and patriarchy are related. Trans* people threaten the gender binary no matter what gender they identify as, and the gender binary is one of the most fundamental strongholds of the institution of patriarchy. The idea that a person could “become” a different gender by medical means frustrates men’s power over women, because now there is no longer any natural, biological or physical reason to point to in order to explain different levels of privilege and oppression between men and women. Once you can change your gender, all bets are off, and a system that finds basis in the immutability of gender/sex finds itself very frustrated to justify itself.

Thus, heteronormativity is not simply a series of outdated social attitudes or prejudices; it is a coherent and integrated conceptual system of oppression, each aspect of which can be seen in practice (i.e. in it’s social or physical manifestation) as a microcosm of heteronormative ideals in general. And in this sense, trans* people’s bodies become a physical space to bring these ideological forces together to bear on the lives of people who threaten a systematic form of privilege. They become a place to study, medicalize, and essentialize these very notions through a process of denial of access to mechanisms of control over one’s identity and body, or through a process of licensed transgression under controlled circumstances. The process of evaluating trans* individuals psychologically and medically can be seen as a gateway which attempts to bar individuals who don’t uphold heteronormative ideas about gender from access to a “legitimate” crossing of the gender binary. Trans* bodies are thus a place of investigation of a certain power apparatus that finds its justification in the gender binary, and which only sanctions the bodies of individuals who utter certain shibboleths of gender normativity. This power apparatus asks, do these individuals want to be “real” men and women? Or does their deviance depart from the “natural” gendered order of the universe, and is therefore a matter of mental disorder?

This is also why trans* people get so many questions about their genitalia. Despite the fact that questions about genitalia are almost universally taboo, trans* people reportedly get questions about which kind of junk they have, or if they have both, or if they plan on getting surgery, etc. This is because their bodies are sexualized, medicalized, and are considered as a zone of investigation of a scientific and medical apparatus, and not as a social and private entity invested with private significance and social meaning. In other words, trans* people are considered as “objects” of knowledge as opposed to “subjects”. Their bodies therefore “belong” to the institutions of investigation, and therefore it isn’t socially taboo to lay a  “claim” on them by asking questions that would be considered invasive in pretty much every other context in the world. This is true even outside of a specifically medical or psychological context.

Another problem is the notion of having a medical or psychological authority or expert whose job it is to know and understand queer folk and their bodies better than they themselves do. This is touched upon by Pepper in that same essay:

The diagnosis of sexuality and gender is to be performed by straight medical “experts”. This is the problem of authority described in Halperin’s Saint Foucault, where as soon as a person identifies (or is identified) as queer, they paradoxically lose authority to speak on queer matters. Conversely, if a person is known or assumed to be straight, they gain authority when describing queerness.

This is not just a matter of who we listen to, however. The idea that sexuality and gender is something better understood scientifically and externally than personally by the individuals themselves has far reaching implications for queer individuals. Not only do we lose our political voice, we also lose our ability to voice our private experiences of our sexuality and gender and what they mean to us. We lose our self-determination of our own identity. This is seen nowhere better than with trans* folk. Having access to gender confirmation surgery is often (in some places) a necessary step to having the state recognize one’s actual gender, and access to such surgery is often barred by a lengthy process of psychological evaluation. Having power over one’s body and identity is therefore wrested from the individuals in question and returned to the realm of control of heteronormativity, which seeks to always and everywhere maintain this kind of control over the bodies and identities of individuals.

Thus, the political technology of trans* bodies, to return to Foucault, is centered on a process of investigation to determine and ascertain that trans* individuals are not given too much liberty with their use of their bodies to subvert gender norms. Any transgression must be licensed with a specific effort to conform to gender expectations in one’s transition.

This is crucial to understanding the political technology of trans* bodies: one cannot transition simply because one wants to. One doesn’t have those kinds of rights to control one’s body; there has to be some kind of extra-personal justification for this disruption in the heteronormative social body. Specifically, the DSM V (as it currently stands) lists the following as a condition for diagnosis of gender dysphoria in adults:

B. The condition is associated with clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning,  or with a significantly increased risk of suffering, such as distress or disability**

Besides the obvious problems with associating trans* individuals with a kind of disorder (much like homosexuality was previously), thus barring them from ever being understood as “normal”, there is something hugely problematic here. The fact that trans* people even experience “clinically significant distress” because of their gender identity is precisely because their control over their bodies, genders, and identities is removed from them by the very process of diagnosis that demands such distress be present. Trans* people wouldn’t experience distress if we would let them have control over their bodies and identities, and accept them for who they are. Instead, the process that removes that control demands distress, a distress that is caused by the removal of control over one’s body. Psychology simultaneously demands and creates the distress that trans* people face in bringing their bodies in conformity with their gender identities.

Trans* bodies are a place for dialogue between different social ideals that shape the institution of psychology: the desire to maintain a normality in social and economic functionality and the desire to maintain an ideal and essentialized normality of “humanity”, which includes the binary worldview of gender. Foucault’s words on the economic investments in the political technology of the body are useful here, as it is not until “impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” is present that psychology intervenes, or, more properly, steps out of the way and allows trans* individuals the control over their bodies that is necessary to being comfortable with oneself.

This is seen very clearly in a recent federal ruling about a transgender woman whose prison denied her access to gender confirmation surgery. Of course a prison is a place which inherently seeks to control the bodies of its inmates to a certain extent. However, preventing the kind of socially and personally significant control over one’s body that is inherent in any discussion of trans* issues certainly constitutes cruel and unusual amplification of the prison sentence. And, as is to be expected, the issue was framed in the wrong way:

In the past, doctors have generally been reluctant to provide services to transgender inmates; the medical establishment and insurance companies often saw these treatments as “elective.”

The article here is discussing whether or not gender confirmation surgery should be considered medically “necessary”. And of course it is, but only by virtue of the fact that when you deprive people of agency with their own bodies and identities, they tend to get pretty depressed about it. Incarceration in general is a great way to force heteronormativity onto trans* bodies: placing trans* people with the wrong gender, placing them in situations that could result in sexual assault or rape (thus polluting their bodies with feelings of negativity and shame), etc.

So far we have psychology, medicine, and the prison system policing trans* bodies. What about the judicial system? Judges of course always get involved in any situation in which a trans* person is discriminated against, and it is often a judge who is the ultimate arbiter of whether or not a trans* person has control over their body. For example in August, the Illinois Department of Human Rights threw out a complaint from a transgender woman who was barred from using a women’s restroom. Public restrooms inherently enforce gender norms, since they are usually binary and usually there is a lot of judging gender based on appearance in order to determine who belongs where. That and gender non-conforming people often face harassment and sexual assault no matter which bathroom they use. But the notion of a judge or some legal or para-legal expert upholding that a trans* person must conform to embodied notions of gender is exactly the kind of action that is just another power play in the heteronormative political technology of trans* bodies. According to the article:

The dismissal confirms that Hobby Lobby personnel instructed Sommerville to use the men’s room because she “still possessed his (sic) male anatomy.”

Even though the woman had a state-issued license confirming her identity as female, they refused to acknowledge how ridiculous it would be to force someone to use the men’s room on the basis of whether or not they have a penis. Should we have the TSA lined up outside every bathroom using scanners to check if anyone going in the women’s room has a penis? Or maybe we  should stop using our legal system as means of controlling peoples bodies by telling them which restroom to use.

I want to conclude by applying this framework to a very brief discussion of women and abortion. Given what I have said above, how can we understand attempts to limit women’s access to abortions? Put simply, it is an invasion of social forces into the bodies of women that seeks to use the mechanisms of power in place in society (law, public funding, etc.) as a means of control. Taking away women’s control over their bodies in the case of pregnancy accomplishes several things: It limits their ability to work, creates financial burdens on them that are potentially disempowering, and it reinforces the idea that women must be mothers, that their job is to reproduce, that they are somehow obligated to spend 9 months undergoing a change in their bodies that they never intended in order to bring a human being into the world that they might not possess the means or desire to care for. And of course it’s then up to them to take care of the child they didn’t choose to have. In other words, limiting access to abortions is simply a way to use women’s bodies as a means of social control, one that reinforces the gender hierarchy and politically disempowers women. It is therefore entirely proper to discuss abortion in terms of the right to privacy: our bodies are the most private part of ourselves, and having the government invade them and tell them what to do with them is antithetical to this right.

And that’s it for now. There’s a lot more I could talk about, but I’m running out of steam. I want to open this discussion up to my followers, especially trans* folk who have gone to therapy or have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria in order to get access to hormones or surgery. Does this analysis ring true for you?

Filed under queer theory women trans trans rights trans issues trans health feminism

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