Academics don’t much like to admit this, but intellectual fads come and go in the academy just like they do everywhere else. Intellectual fads that are frequently influenced by wider factors like the economic and cultural climate of the times.
The academy itself is facing some interesting challenges right now, driven by the neo-liberal ideologies that are increasingly dictating how universities operate. Key to this is the notion of universities as economically driven marketplaces, where the emphasis is not on learning and intellectual challenge, but on churning out workplace-orientated corporate-identified degree graduates ready to take their place in the neo-liberal conservative world. Also key is the loss of job security for many academics – especially young academics – most of whom struggle from one short term contract to the next with no guarantee of steady income or career continuity. Significantly, tenured positions have become almost impossible to secure, which means that many academics no longer have the freedom to discuss controversial ideas without fear of repercussions to their careers. Also significantly, with ever-increasing pressure to publish, publish, publish, the most likely way an academic will have the chance to one day secure a tenured position is by buying into and supporting those academic ideas which are already dominant and fashionable, rather than pursuing more confronting research that disrupts accepted assumptions.
Are you bored yet? Don’t be, it’s about to get interesting. Queer Theory has had a long and successful run in the academy for at least 20 years now, but 20 years is a long time and intellectual fashions move on. Queer Theory has really been taken just about everywhere it can go, and I suspect that a lot of academics who have built their careers on Queer are currently looking around to see what they can do next. Enter Trans. Loosely, we might say that what I am going to call Trans Theory in this post means interpreting the world through a transgender framework, much in the same way as Queer Theory was previously used. It can include reinterpreting characters, myths, films, literature and historical figures as Trans, not leaving out minority texts and figures previously understood as belonging to gay or lesbian culture, and more generally actively promoting Trans ideologies as transgressive and revolutionary. In can also mean encouraging the adoption of Transgender identities and ways of self-relating, potentially also including body modifications in the form of hormones and/or surgeries. This can be done either for the ‘conservative’ and more traditional reason of making one’s supposed brain sex match up with one’s body, or the ‘progressive’ reason of wanting to fuck with gender and/or confound people’s gender expectations by, e.g. presenting them with a penis where they expect a vagina and so on.
This emergent Trans Theory is strongly influenced by Queer Theory – has grown out of it, one might almost say – and probably looks like an attractive option for the ambitious academic looking to identify him or herself with the next big thing. It is both fashionable and popular, appears ‘progressive’ and ‘edgy’, whilst not actually presenting any real challenge to the dominant conservative powers that be (which could lead our academic into real difficulties – see above) and much of the language and ideology is similar enough to Queer Theory that our academic will not have to modify too much of her or his academic practice. Winners all round!
Except that there is a bit of a spanner in the works, which is a concurrently re-emerging grassroots feminist movement that cares less about fancy-schamsy theories and more about the real life forms of violence and oppression suffered by that beleaguered class of humans known as biological females. But there’s room for everyone, right? Room for all the diversity of ideas in the wonderful liberal haven of tolerance! Ha ha. I think any woman who has ever expressed a strident feminist opinion (or even a moderate feminist opinion) knows just how much tolerance she can expect, which is to say if she’s lucky she’ll be ignored and if she’s not she’ll get rape and death threats.
But back to our Queer2Trans academics. Why is feminism – specifically grassroots woman-centering feminism – a threat to them? Well because one thread of thought that is emerging quite strongly is critique of both queer and trans ideologies, including from the voices of detransitioners harmed by the medical industry. This constitutes a threat to our academics’ careers and livelihoods. Not only that, but if Trans smoothly takes over from Queer then these academics are really set. Not only are they part of the next wave of cool academic theory, their previous Queer work will become enshrined as Foundational Thinking for all the ‘cutting edge’ and ‘enlightened’ theories that grow out of it, of which Trans (I guarantee you) will only be one. But – if things should go the other way, and feminist women start to influence society to think that maybe the surgical castration of gender non-conforming children who would most likely otherwise grow up lesbian or gay is a bit wrong, that telling lesbians to accept penises is actually kinda homophobic, that it is quite backwards and woman-hating to say that women who fail to adequately perform femininity must really be men, that passing laws to force women and girls to accept penises into all and any spaces where those penises want to be is not evidence of the advance of women’s liberation from men and all their violent rapey bullshit – well then, our academics might be in trouble.
So far, our Queer2Trans academics and their less well informed supporters, often in the form of young activists and students (who, with charming naivety actually believe this is about revolution! And freedom! And other things! And not actually about making their professors’ careers) have employed a number of techniques to begin the process of trying to legitimate Trans ideologies into the academy. The first is modelling trans narratives, identifications and need for rights after the movement for lesbian and gay rights, creating an implicit and often explicit association between the two, with the implication that the good liberal citizen who is supportive of lesbians and gays should also be supportive of transgenderism, which takes on the appearance of another form of minority sexuality leant legitimization by its proximity to gay sexuality.
This, however, deliberately obfuscates the increasing tensions between LGB and transgender interests – including the targeting of lesbians for medical transition, the use of transgender surgery as a ‘cure’ for homosexuality in some parts of the world, and men who identify as women feeling entitled to inhabit lesbian spaces and fuck lesbian bodies, and feeling they have the right to harass or threaten lesbians who disagree that they and their penises are women.
Another popular technique is the silencing of dissent and erasure of evidence of disagreement with transgenderism. You can see just one example of this here. This is an interesting one, isn’t it? In order for Trans to succeed Queer quietly, without a fuss, it’s absolutely necessary that there is no evidence, anywhere, that any of this is problematic, especially for the rest of us who are swimming around in the arbitrary alphabet soup, since we are apparently the ones who are meant to support it the most, or have the most interests in common. Silencing of disagreement is also evident in the many, many examples where any comment about transgenderism which is even slightly less than all affirming, especially if made by a feminist woman, is declared hate speech and removed. This might also be the time to mention Christine Benvenuto’s book Sex Changes: A Memoir of Marriage, Gender, and Moving On and the Queer academics who wanted to ban it on the say-so of Benvenuto’s ex-husband. And the short film The Gendercator, made by lesbian filmmaker Catherine Crouch, that was banned from the 2007 Frameline LGBT Film Festival in San Francisco for alleged transphobia, which amounted to critiquing the medicalised enforcement of masculine and feminine gender roles.
So what happens if things go the other way, and the feminist movement gains momentum, and there starts to be widespread questioning and reassessment of some of the tenants of Queer and Transgender theory? Well then, I’m afraid our Queer2Trans academics would be relegated to a Damaging Fringe Theory That Didn’t Work Out, and the prestige and the research grants would no longer be quite so forthcoming. Nor would their past contributions be held in quite the same esteem. No one wants to be remembered as yesterday’s phrenologist.
What is interesting, at this particular juncture, is that if Trans Theory does take over from Queer Theory, then many of those who have been supporting Queer Theory until now under the assumption that it’s an inclusive movement will find themselves suddenly no longer included. They will have been screwed in an entirely predictable way, but will nevertheless wonder in bewilderment, shock! Horror! Where did it all go wrong? And – no surprises here – lesbians, especially young lesbians who have never known anything but queer politics, will be the ones to bear the brunt of it; who will find they have been theorised out of existence and henceforth can only exist in relation to, or as, men.
And I think they’ll also find that not one of their alphabet soup allies will care.