Regular readers of this blog will know how I feel about Julie Bindel and her terrible views, which are - upsettingly enough - shared by grand dames of the movement including Germaine Greer. I think it’s important not only to challenge them, but to offer a response. So here’s a contemporary feminist take on femininity, feminism and transgenderism, from the point of view of a largely cis-gendered feminist activist (yes, many of my best friends are transgdendered and wondering where all their makeup has gone). For a transsexual feminist's viewpoint and a much more in-depth and articulate study, look no further than the excellent Whipping Girl by the ravishing and razor-sharp Julia Serano.
Transsexualism is not merely a valid part of the queer- and gender-liberation movements: it's a vital one. The notion that one's biological sex does not have to dictate anything about one's behaviour, appearance or even the eventual layout of one's genitals and secondary sex organs, now that we live in a glittering future where such things are possible, is a radical one.
Furthermore, not all transsexuals present, as Bindel would have it, as 'men in dresses'. Transsexualism, transgenderism, transvestism and intersexuality present in a myriad different ways. Some bio-men choose to live as women and to take hormones, but do not elect to have any surgery. Some bio-women present as males half the time by binding their breasts, stuffing their pants and going to nightclubs in tanktops and baseball caps, the liberated 'bois' of the spreading San-Francisco scene. Some people are born with hormone imbalances, or born entirely outside of the two-gender sphere altogether: in fact, one in 2,000 babies is born without an XX or XY genotype. Trans issues go way beyond 'men in dresses', although drag queens tend to remain the postergirls for the same reason that Kylie Minogue is now the face of breast cancer: they look good doing it.
Femininity is not a sacred cow. Femininity is a social construct, and Bindel is right to identify it as such, but utterly wrong to claim that transsexuals re-enforce these stereotypes. The problem is not with transsexuals, but with our entire fucked-up construction of what is 'male' and what 'female', what 'masculine' and what 'feminine'. Bindel's bio-'boys' in 'fuck-me-boots and birds-nest hair' are no different from today's bewildered 12, 13 and 14-year old girls struggling to make the transition from deeply felt, little-understood womanhood to socially dictated artificial 'femininity'. Like teenage girls stuffing their bras with loo-roll and smearing on inappropriate lipstick, the m-t-f transsexuals for whom Bindel, Greer and their ilk reserve special hatred are simply craving what all growing girls crave: social acceptance.
Yes, they are performing femininity. But so are all women, every day. Yes, some of them might sometimes present as 'pantomime dames' in Greer's ever-tactful phraseology. But after a long night out on the tiles, too much slap, tarty heels, padded bra, bling and rapidly deflating hairdo, I fail to see in what way I'm less of a pantomime dame than, say, the fabulous Jodie Harsh (a lady who does it much, much, much better than almost everyone else).
Jodie Harsh is a pantomime dame. So is Victoria Beckham. Lily Savage is a pantomime dame. So is Vivienne Westwood. So was Margaret Thatcher. So is the Queen of England. We are all pantomime dames, performing femininity because that's how we gain social acceptance. Those who have least to gain by performing femininity – bio-males who, in doing so, voluntarily and utterly abandon male privilege – are perhaps the bravest and canniest of all of us.
It is those who have found themselves outside the two-sex system who have done the most to challenge toxic gender binaries throughout history. From the Hirjas of India to the holy hermaphrodites of ancient Greece, from the Molly-boys of 18th century London to the f-t-m artists of bohemian paris, transsexual, transgender, transvestite and intersexed individuals have been revered and reviled, studied and sought out, as if they held the keys to the mysteries of the gender system that binds us. Perhaps they do.