FEMINIST academic Viviane Namaste is one of Canada's best-known writers on the subject of trans (a.k.a. transsexual and transgender) issues and activism. Sex Change, Social Change gathers together columns, interviews, and writings that were previously scattered in hard-to-get zines, such as Gendertrash, her personal correspondence, and statements sheâe(TM)s made to committees, along with new content.
Namaste's two overarching aims in this collection are to critique feminist approaches to trans issues and to identify currents within feminism that might productively guide future political organizing. This project, while somewhat painful at times, is important, argues Namaste, because "the writing of our history forms our consciousness and determines the forms of political action in which we engage." The history of marginalized people such as sex workers, prisoners, drug users, and racialized groups has been poorly written or erased altogether, and "this absence tells us something important about the class-based interests of many feminists."
Namaste feels that the feminist lens through which we have viewed trans issues to date has been one primarily constructed by white, middle-class Anglo women. Indeed, one of Namaste's important contributions to this field has been to highlight the struggles of trans people who are often marginalized by class, race-ethnicity, and institutions such as the legal system.
This collection attempts to push past previous theorizing on trans issues that has focused narrowly on questions of identity and inclusion. A preoccupation with identity, Namaste proposes, diverts attention from an analysis of institutional power. Namaste draws on feminist postcolonialist theory, which is concerned with how power intersects with forces such as capitalism, racism, and patriarchy to engage in imperialist projects of literal and metaphorical domination and colonization. She also draws on lived experience, exploring the day-to-day challenges that confront trans people.
This is an important point, as a great deal of the scholarship produced around gender has been dominated by poststructuralist and postmodernist cultural theory, or by medical-psychological disciplines. Such scholarship remains quite unconcerned with the concrete operation of power (such as, for example, legal and judicial systems), or the quotidian reality of tasks such as locating housing, using the washroom, getting adequate health care, and finding (and keeping) a job. Namaste is pointed in her critique: "[Being trans] is not about challenging the binary sex/gender system, it is not about making a critical intervention every waking second of the day, it is not about starting the Gender Revolution. Queer theorists, as well as transgendered theoristsâe¦ just don't get it." Trans people, argues Namaste, must be understood on their own terms, and their stories told in their own voices.
While this is an excellent reminder, at times I am somewhat troubled by the undercurrent of what feels like an implicit rejection of gay and lesbian-based contributions to trans organizing, though this may not be Namaste's intention. I agree that trans concerns are often consumed and tokenized by larger political projects, and that trans lives have been either rejected by queer communities or falsely claimed (for instance, FTMs âe" female-to-male transsexuals âe" may be understood inaccurately as "really" part of a lesbian continuum).
But I cannot help but feel nervous when she makes statements that proclaim trans people's outright rejection of gay and lesbian politics: "The infrastructure of lesbian organizing serves to propel the visibility of lesbian-identified transsexualsâe¦ [T]ranssexuals who do not adopt the party lineâe¦ cannot speak.âe
To me, such statements have uncomfortable parallels to mainstream fears over feminist "political correctness" and "silencing" of conservative viewpoints. Non-trans queers must confront their transphobia and other prejudices, but should straight trans people be exempt from examining their own internalized biases? Should alliances and solidarity with gay and lesbian political projects be avoided? Additionally, what of trans people who experience heteronormative pressure from health care providers, including rejecting same-gender desires, gender-neutral names, and any self presentation that could be perceived as gender-ambiguous?
Since medical practices have often "typed" trans people based on their perceived sexuality, used sexual behaviour and desires as a basis to restrict care or pathologize subjects (for example, suggesting that same-sex erotic desire or enjoyment of wearing gendered clothing of choice is incompatible with an authentic process of transition) and even on occasion denied the existence of bisexual transsexuals, a productive and thoughtful alliance with gay and lesbian as well as other social justice and human rights struggles remains a valuable objective.
Although Namaste is frequently good at linking some oppressions, such as poverty and the marginalization of trans people, or the role of imperialism in political activism, she can be occasionally, and unfortunately, flippant about others. In a description of the Counting Past 2 festival, a trans and intersex-focused film, video, and arts festival, she highlights the participation of "broad and diverse segments of the transsexual and transvestite communities, notably people of colour and prostitutes" but brushes off the issue of MTFs exuberantly applying perfume and hair spray at scent-free events, suggesting that such restrictions reflect the conceit of uptight bourgeois activists rather than the genuine needs of people disabled by environmental allergies.
Nevertheless, by identifying practical ways in which particular communities can be marginalized or incorporated, she demonstrates ways in which somewhat more inclusive gatherings can occur.
Namaste does some of her best work as a social historian. Her accounts of trans performers in 60s and 70s Quebec cabarets and bars develop a "situated ethnography" that explores the social and political context of urban francophone society in Montreal at mid-century, and provides examples of institutionalized oppression of trans people as well as the many ways in which trans people resisted such oppression.
While trans people were harassed by the police, mocked by judges, and thrown into prison for cross-dressing, they were also inventive and resilient in defending themselves and constructing networks of solidarity, sharing contact information of sympathetic doctors who would perform required surgeries, and, even, as Namaste notes, throwing themselves beneath parked cars when they saw the police approaching.
Such accounts shift the readers' focus to the subjective accounts of "real people" rather than nameless medical subjects or abstract concepts; they also provide the reader with a means to understand the complex structures in place that were (and are) dedicated to criminalize and penalize so-called "deviance." Unless political actors address this process of criminalization and consequence, argues Namaste, and its attendant issues such as poverty and physical safety, "the current framework for action is doomed."
Despite Namaste's often excellent use of evidence such as oral histories, at other times the evidence provided is scant. For example, she writes that "most transsexual youth work as prostitutes, andâe¦ most of these individuals are from ethnocultural communities" or "most transsexuals do not want to have any formal association with the lesbian/gay communities." Although Namaste indicates that the latter statement is derived from a decade of observation, and although those readers who have read Namaste's lesser-known work such as reports on social services may feel confident in her assertions, these types of general statements deserve more robust exploration and substance, particularly in a work that argues against the erasure of diversity. Supporting information would add to, not detract from, Namaste's powerful arguments.
Feminist instructors and group facilitators will benefit from a useful piece on teaching the Kimberly Nixon case, an important Canadian case, which is likely headed to the Supreme Court, concerning the right of a trans woman to volunteer at a women's rape crisis centre in Vancouver. The chapter does not delve into the legal or narrative details of the case, but rather provides a way for students to digest and discuss some of the issues raised, such as what counts as "experience," whether "protection" is an appropriate objective, and feminist appeals to the law.
Namaste's book is an important contribution to the broad field of feminist scholarship, and to the Canadian context in particular. It is written in accessible language and would be of interest to various types of readers, from students, to social theorists, to community activists. It serves as a strong reminder of how much work remains to be done, of the importance of power relations and situated analyses, and of how we as social activists must remain vigilant in ensuring that we adequately and substantively address the needs and concerns of diverse people.âe"Krista Scott-Dixon
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