Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion & the End of Gender
In the foreword, Riki Anne Wilchins distances herself from being a “spokestrans” or “spokesherm.” Read My Lips is outspoken, personal, and at the same time deeply theoretical. Though she is co-founder of Transexual Menace and Executive Director of GenderPAC, the opening statement makes it clear that if you put three different transpeople in a room, you’ll get three different opinions. This isn’t an ivory-tower book, but a practical reflection on the politics of gender told through a loose series of papers draped around a hazy frame.
The first chapter, Why this Book reflects on the nature of divisions like pre-op and post-op, and the invasion of what Foucault would call Scientia Sexualis (my observation, not Wilchins). The “transgender studies” anthology is a ticket to an academic grant and a book— observations based on the perspective of the sociologist or anthropologist, the gaze on an “inexplicable distant tribe” (21). She speaks of the trans-experience as a peculiarly incestuous one, a case of being robbed of a sense of belonging to a community through a transgression that robs a person of their intimate moments— there is a sense of hiding, of dishonesty. The view of theorists peering into the community is characterized as being that of “tourists on a junket” (22). The questions she wants to address include: Why are transpeople so lonely? What are the actual conditions of their lives? Why are they economically and politically oppressed? Why are they so often the victims of abuse and crime? Wilchins asserts that trans-identity is not a natural fact, but a political category people are forced to occupy when they do certain things to their bodies.
17 Things You Don’t Say to a Transexual is hilarious. The real issues start to develop in What Does it Cost to Tell the Truth. Wilchins proposes that appearance is a category on “the far side of language,” a phrase appropriated from Judith Butler. However, we don’t get to participate in life without our own specific “gender id” which we carry with us, like a passport. The associations of appearance are socially constructed, and if your appearance matches a point on the cultural grid, fine— otherwise, the price of telling the truth is high. Video Tape moves back and forth through difficult situations from Wilchins’ past, landing on an interesting note.
The problem with transexual women is not that we are trapped in the wrong bodies. The truth is that is a fairly trivial affair, corrected by doctors with sharp scalpels. The problem is that we are trapped in a society which alternates between hating and ignoring, or tolerating and exploiting us and our experience.
More importantly, we are trapped in the wrong minds. We have, too many of us for too long, been trapped in too much self-hate: the hate reflected back at us by others, unwilling to look at the complexity of our lives, dismiss our femaleness, or femininity, our sense of gender and erotic choices as merely imitative or simply derivative. (47)
A digression: The final chapters of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble are dedicated to a dissection of societal ideas regarding gender in the same vein. I’m having difficulty being convinced that there is a way out of thinking of gender as imitation— even recast as performative mimesis, as Wilchins and Butler both attempt, at the root it is still an imitation. Notions of the essential truth of sex stabilize these performances, and even those who would recast the world as either masculine, feminine, lesbian, or genderless (as most of the trans critics seem to lean) still face the problem of a mythic origin, an essential way of being which precedes the imitation. However, I have no problem with the concept heading of the following lecture: “Sex! Is A Verb.” I really love the closing subhead of that Wilchins lecture: What If They Gave a Sex and Nobody Came?
The overriding thought of that lecture is that sex is a cultural command. There is a “social apparatus whose sole purpose is to determine, track and maintain my sex” (57). There is no choice but to place yourself somewhere in the available grid of society. This results in labeling, feigned closure, and a discomfort with complexity. However, this assertion seems dangerously flawed— there has long been a historical, perhaps evolutionary, impulse toward deeper levels of complexity in all things. The problem with frank disclosure, which Wilchins’ book is a grand example of, is that it points at the idea that at increasing levels of complexity the labels which we have bonded our society together with always fail— yet we have no choice but to employ some form of universalizing discourse to hold the unstable combinations together.
The Menace Statement to Janice Raymond returns to the difficulty with essentialism again. This time, it is framed in the Lockean notion that there exists some tabula rasa of feminine identity which society inscribes itself upon, couched in the self-serving assertion that the supposedly “free” desire of the queer community is libratory. By not submitting to the given gender categories, the gender radicals feel that they are subverting the system. Somehow, this seems to be full of crap. By being in society, participating within what are rapidly becoming “queer norms” I think they are just reinscribing the same forces which they seek to overthrow.
Wilchins addresses this in Birth of the Homosexual, and offers no solution: “The rules of discourse actually prevent intelligent discourse” (66). In order to make meaning we name things; she cites Foucault’s argument that the “homosexual” was defined in the nineteenth century in order to shore-up the definition of heterosexuality. Wilchins once again tries to place herself outside, as disinterested in these definitions:
It is ridiculous to ask me to feel better because Leonardo da Vinci sucked cock as it is for a straight person to feel better because Picasso ate cunt. Filling in the erasures of hetero-centric history is important, but does anyone believe that Leonardo built his identity on whom he fucked, or even considered himself a homosexual? (70)
Wilchins chastises gay liberation movements who attempt to collapse the differences between the members of those communities. Inevitably, she admits that these movements rather than dismantling the systems of gender oppression instead just build another house out back (71).
Why Identity Politics . . . Sucks reiterates the dissatisfaction with the politics of identity, and aligns itself with Butler’s notion of gender as free-floating, and resistant to classification.
I have no interest in being part of a transgender or transexual movement whose sole purpose is to belly up to the Big Table and help ourselves to yet another slice of Identity Pie, leaving in our wake some other, more marginalized group to carry on its own struggle alone. (87).
After a photo essay of protest demonstrations, and an exploration of transgender genitalia construction, Wilchins returns to the problems of naming in A Fascism of Meaning. She asserts that the body is a site of constraint and authorization, and that our narrow gender constructs represent a crime against meaning (130-132). In a rather Deleuzian move, she argues for discourse that does not require “a specific identity” as a prerequisite for communication. Wilchins seeks, and I applaud her for it, ways of arranging oneself where gender is not a required identification strategy.
In Imaginary Bodies, Imagining Minds Wilchins raises the question of knowledge of one’s body as a social identity. Transpeople do not have the luxury of avoiding this question, “for the identification of being a trans if it is about anything, is about the private experience of profoundly important and complex subjective states” (142). Transpeople must go through this question to identify themselves. The two options regarding gendered consciousness are not useful. First, there is the assumption that there exists a gendered identity intrinsic in people. Second, there is the assumption that the presence or lack of certain physical features constitutes identity. Discarding the essentialist position means that bodies have no fixed or predetermined identities, and hence stabilizing identity is difficult (145). Wilchens does not seek to overthrow the concept of the gender binary, but rather to suggest that it exists as a flux that can be blended (147). What she ultimately argues for is a freedom of choice, to choose either gender, or a point in-between, or none at all (157).
It is difficult to conceive of eroticism without gender. In Eroticism: On the Uses of Difference argues that eroticism is indeed, gendered pleasure:
What I would like to argue here is that gender, loosely defined, is this difference engine we keep coming at from a variety of angles: a set of cultural technologies for producing stabilizing differences between bodies. Its binding principle is not just the formal systems (laws, courts, medicine, etc.), nor the techniques of discipline and self that produce and uphold our belief in it, but its peculiar and peculiarly powerful ability to secure itself, to stabilize and even create eroticism. (163).
Eroticism creates a system of valuation, of desire. Wilchins aligns herself with Lévi-Strauss’s observation that the binary system of difference between bodies ensures “a reciprocal state of dependency” (164).
In an interesting maneuver similar to Foucault’s Scientia Sexualis, Wilchins then goes on to assert that meaning has been substituted for the flood of sensuality— “sensation requires a lot of bandwidth and is difficult to direct. Meaning, on the other hand, has every advantage” (165). Because meaning can be easily packaged, transmitted, and replicated in public it asserts itself as a substitute for sensation, which requires human contact for transmission. Disconnected from “any attachment to satiation” it is “infinitely manipulated, massaged, and magnified” (166).
Our erotics has created an entire Geography of the Absent— body parts that aren’t named, acts one mustn’t do, genders one can’t perform— because they are outside the binary box. We live in an erotics peopled by ghosts we cannot see and are haunted, nonetheless, by the specter of their return. (167).
Wilchins echoes Foucault’s call for “power without the throne” in a call for “erotics without sensation”— a notion of the erotic focused on the mental imagery outside bodily sensation. Sex without bodies— once again, she sounds like Deleuze. The argument, like Foucault’s argument that power does not reside “within” any person or institution, is that the erotic is not in us, or in our notions of self. I find this difficult. An amorphous definition is difficult to accept, unless eroticism is recast as just another form of power in the Foucaultian sense. However, recasting erotics as the “meanings between bodies” as she does in the conclusion is more comfortable. For me at least, it is an interchange of non-linguistic meanings between people, not just bodies. Critical theory of the erotic is always circular and confusing.
The final parts of the book are focused on the difficult erotic politics of being a transexual lesbian. I find myself wishing that the book had been a bit more assertive in theory to match the intense level of personal involvement invested by Wilchins. It’s not a boring read, by far— like most significant books it raises far more questions than it offers answers. It presents the theories of Butler and Foucault in a distinctly practical light— the light of personal experience.