The revolution came to me as a hot woman on a magazine cover. The revolution came to me in high-high heels with legs totteringly crossed. The revolution wore a tight-tight dress, with breasts thrust forward and shoulders pulled back, facing down the camera but pouting seductively. The revolution’s hair was long, blonde and tonged; the revolution’s make-up was impeccable. In fact, this is what I think: if Laverne Cox on the cover of Time is the transgender tipping point, then it’s time to accept that trans politics and feminism have never been headed to the same place. Because Laverne Cox on the cover of Time does not look like a revolution to me: she looks like what women on the covers of magazines always look like. Beautiful, yielding, toned, sexy. The fact that she is a trans woman changes nothing about the kind of roles that women are supposed to perform in public life.
Laurie Penny thinks rather differently to me. She writes: “The notion that biology is not destiny has always been at the heart of radical feminism. Trans activists and feminists should be natural allies.” But as far as I can tell from the Cox cover, the current state of trans politics simply rejects “biology as destiny” in favour of “gender as destiny”. You don’t have to be born female to be a woman any more, perhaps, but to be entirely a woman is to belong to the male gaze, to fully inhabit the condition of an object in the dominion of masculine desire – and of course, 95% of those people living in the male gaze will be female, even if we adopt the very upper limit of Penny’s estimate that between 0.1 and 5% of the population is trans. That makes me dubious of the following claim:
“If gender identity is fluid – if anyone can change their gender identity, decide to live as a man, a woman, or something else entirely, as it suits them – then we have to question every assumption about gender and sex role we’ve had drummed into us since the moment the doctors handed us to our panting mothers and declared us a boy or a girl. That’s an enormous prospect to consider, and some people find it scary.”
Cox on the cover of Time makes us question no assumptions whatsoever about women, other than the fact that they must be female. There is nothing here to frighten fetishisers of gender roles, so long as those fetishisers can absorb a few exceptions into their system on either side. Narratives of transition so often spin out from stereotypes: statements such as I knew I was a girl because I liked playing with dolls and wearing pink are commonplace. So too are statements such as we knew he was a boy because he didn’t like playing with dolls or wearing pink, because there are parents who would rather diagnose transness in their gender-rebel kids than face the stigma of raising a child who fails to fit. The fact that these stereotypes are mutable, and we live in an era of anti-feminist backlash attended by an astounding degree of apartheid in children’s toys and play, is ignored in the rush to medicalise difference.
Gender is not a spectrum, it’s a structure – a binary with “man” superior and centralised, and “woman” inferior and othered. To be designated “cis” is to be identified in your very nature with one of these roles, through the accident of your genitals. It is to take a hypothesised element of the psyche known as “gender identity” or “brain sex” by trans theorists, and give it the status of a truth, even though there is little-to-no evidence that such a thing exists. (That, by the way, is where the analogy Penny draws between “cis/trans” and “straight/gay” falls down: I recognise that I have a sexual orientation or preference and experience feelings derived from it, but I have never experienced those things called “gender identity” or “brain sex”, nor do I have persuasive evidence of them from elsewhere, so I cannot in good conscience adopt a term that says such things exist.)
Penny opens her column with a description of a colouring book she owns called Finding Gender, starring a child and a robot. The colouring book is radical, she says, because “the child isn’t identifiably male or female. Neither is the robot. The person with the crayons gets to decide what they’re wearing, whether they’re boys or girls, or both or neither.” But the aim of the book is in the title: gender is something you’re supposed to find, not overthrow or undermine. Laverne Cox is a great actor and a beautiful woman. I hope that her appearance on the front of Time gives heart and hope to people living with with sex dysphoria. But from my feminist perspective, she’s another hot woman on a magazine cover.