Advances in transsexual health and social reforms presents, at least at the surface, a challenge to some models of traditional feminism.
One of the small additions to the Harvard University Health plan this year covers staff and students’ gender-realignment surgery. (In previous years, “top” surgery was covered, this year “bottom” surgery will also be covered.) This is excellent news. Such surgery is very expensive (thus requiring insurance), and it has an overwhelming rate of post-operation satisfaction. In other words, it works: It improves the lives of those who very firmly believe that they are not the gender their body once expressed. For a population with a 41 percent suicide rate, this is incredibly important.
The remarkable success of such surgery is a medical and humanist victory. But interestingly, it presents, at least at the surface, a
challenge to some models of traditional feminism. This stems from the contradiction between the idea that people are innately a certain gender and the traditional feminist view that gender is—at least in large part—socially created and imposed. The most famous intellectual proponent of this idea is Judith Butler, who writes in her work “Undoing Gender” that gender is simply “doing, incessantly performed.” In other words, it is not one’s genitalia that make one a particular gender, but rather one’s behavior, constructed through some combination of unconscious absorption of societal standards, embodied performance, and conscious personal choice. Butler’s theory is liberating in many ways. It discards the notion that seemingly effeminate men or masculine women are unnatural or wrong; it opens all avenues of gender-related self-expression to all people. But the existence of transgender people, and the success rate of realignment surgery, does not square with the idea that gender is simply a social and personal construction. If so, why would some people in the same society not be constructed into conformity with their physical form like the rest? Why would they choose to construct themselves as something so agonizingly deviant that it would make them suicidal? Why would surgery almost never cause regret if gender can be constructed and thus re-constructed?
In this sense, the existence of transgender people and the claim of transgender individuals that their gender is something innate could be seen as a threat to feminism. It has, in fact, been taken as such: another famous feminist, Germaine Greer, repeatedly argued in her book “The Whole Woman” that “[a]s sufferers from gender role distress themselves, women must sympathize with transsexuals but a feminist must argue that the treatment for gender role distress is not mutilation of the sufferer but radical change of gender roles.” Transgender people, she argues, must be mentally ill (perhaps as a result of being unable to cope with the confines of traditional gender roles) rather than actually of a different gender.