In my last blog post I wrote possibly the most positive press that postmodernism has received in the last decade. (That post backgrounds this one so I recommend you read it first.) Postmodernism peaked in the 90’s and early 2000's as a general search term but as the following graph shows it has encountered a steady fall in popularity since then.
I feel, despite its decline, that postmodern ideas can help out with some contemporary problems. In fact some contemporary problems remind me very much of a situation at university in my twenties when I felt postmodern ideas contained a way to approach an irresolvable conflict.
The problem back then regarded women-only spaces. This was usually a small lounge on a university campus which was reserved for women students. The rest of the university was only nominally a shared space. Men generally took up most of the public space as per our socialization. There were mostly men on the pool tables for example. It seemed to me that amongst the jocks, men dominated groups with casual ease, but I more often hung out with the card playing geeks, where guys hastily claimed every flat surface available to play on with their friends. I was then, and am now, a supporter of women only spaces on campuses, even though I am aware that women can be horrible to other women and that a tucked away lounge is not a substitute for equally shared space. A women’s lounge isn’t a perfect solution but it can provide an alternative organizing space for women to confront sexism.
Whether or not transgender women could access women’s only spaces like women’s lounges was and is a confronting issue. Some transgender activists back then insisted they be welcomed in to women’s lounges while others pointedly didn’t. To those who opposed transgender inclusion, transgenderism was the colonization of the territory of women by men, with the women’s lounge a totemic example of that territory. There was a real hostility between feminists who supported transgender women’s inclusion in women’s only space and those who didn’t, partly because this was an issue that reflected other divisions - about how to understand sex-work for example. Some women’s departments seemed torn down the middle.
My stance on the issue was simple: This was none of my business. Even involved as I was in Queer politics, even spending some of my time in a dress as I went from class to protest, to café and to pub I didn’t think the inclusion or exclusion of transgender women from the women’s lounge was for me to decide. I knew that I experienced significant male privilege – dress or no dress. In fact cross-dressing to pass at times (where a person basically fools the average joe they are the other gender) taught me there is a lot of misogyny in this world that many men just don’t know about. Dressed as a woman I had a ton of people grab my ass (arse?) and not in a good way. Friends did it, self declared feminists even did it. As a joke, it wasn’t particularly funny the first time and definitely not by the thirtieth. Nobody grabbed my ass when I was dressed as a bloke.
My own public experiences of wearing women’s clothes were mostly around the ages of eighteen to twenty. I was not always thrilled to be perceived as male and resented the expectation I felt to embrace violence and insensitivity as a bloke. I felt able to escape those expectations by using clothes and mannerisms to appear female. I never identified as female or wanted to be female but then I don’t hugely identify as male or want to be male either. I did however want to be seen as female occasionally just as I imagine most people do. When women want to be seen as female it’s unremarkable however.
All presentations to the world feel like “drag” to me. I put on a suit for court, I dress in a nice shirt and tie for a job interview, I wear a t-shirt and shorts to work with young people in relation to substance use. None of these outfits are the real me. That would be ridiculous. It would mean that I couldn’t exist in some other time such as before the t-shirt's invention. Likewise gender can’t be the real me. Gender, expressed by long hair or short hair or any item of clothing or makeup can’t derive from an essentialist idea of self. These are patterns and they don’t have any more permanence than a style of music. We can feel like the real us is expressed by rap music for example but the us we mean by this is something separate from the expression, and might need other expressions too.
We must be very careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that gender is only self-expression however. We are not alone in society. Everybody else is expressing their views and values too. This is why there is a women’s movement and women’s lounge to begin with; not so much to express one’s own gender but to deal with the impact of other people’s understanding of gender on certain people’s lives. This impact is both externalized in people’s actions and internalized in our thoughts and feelings, so that our “own gender” is mixed up with everyone else’s. As trans-feminist Kate Bornstein describes: “women inhabit women only spaces to heal from the oppression of their number by the larger culture.” (Gender Outlaw, p82)
Each of our individual expressions of gender draw from and contribute to a wider culture (and sub-cultures) around gender. To begin with I have a limited extent to how I can talk about gender based on my imagination, and a part of what limits my imagination are the terms and reference points my culture gives me to begin with. On top of that my self-expression only makes sense to others if I limit myself to terms and reference points they understand. Finally there are real sanctions for deviating from norms around gender and rewards for living up to them. Gender may not be a real part of who I am but it is something I really do have to learn to navigate in the world.
Acknowledging these two sides to Gender is something modernism struggles with. Modernism sees language as essentially a practice of truth-telling: if I say I am a woman this must correspond to the reality that I am a woman. It’s a position that seems obvious. Modernists can critically examine what is meant by reality and recognize there are different kinds of real – all forms of feminism do this to an extent and so does Marxism and many other modernist movements. However Modernism seems to repeatedly fall into the error of talking only in terms of one level of reality and supposing that language should be as direct as possible a description of that reality and nothing else.
Postmodernism always questions what is meant by reality and recognizes that there are different kinds of real. This is inevitable given that postmodern views of language emphasis its many purposes other than truth-telling. Consider how often in our current election campaign we will hear some truth claims about global warming, unemployment, tax-evasion and union corruption from different parties. Even if none of these claims included any lies each party tells the truth they want to tell and glosses over other truths. The purpose of a given selection of truths is not to tell the whole truth but to scare, provoke, please and otherwise motivate voters in a particular direction.
Likewise whenever gender is spoken of there are more purposes than simply truth-telling going on. This cuts both ways. Feminists who want to exclude transgender women from the women’s room can’t rest their case by saying “they are not real women” and equally transgender women cannot claim a right to access women’s rooms because “we are real women” as if that was either clear or a key point. These statements talk about a construct – “real woman” – as if anyone could know scientifically or intuitively exactly what it is and as if that was the organizing principle upon which a women’s lounge was based anyway, a club for “real women”.
One way of differentiating postmodern from modern solutions to this matter is to consider time as a dimension of the problem. Modernist solutions are based on the idea that through truth-telling a solution will reflect a timeless reality. Therefore modernist solutions will be permanent and universal. This is why disagreements can become so high stakes. They are effectively winner-takes-all. Postmodern solutions are not intended to reflect reality but to engage with the circumstances which create the kind of reality that gender is. Therefore postmodern solutions are strategic solutions. Rather than cementing any solution in a constitution that would be difficult to reverse, a postmodern solution would be more willing to come up with policies with a built in sunset clause in recognition that the reality of gender will (hopefully if feminists have anything to do about it) change. A women’s room on one campus might also make a decision different to another women’s room elsewhere because they see their circumstances are different. Different histories and the alliances they have created would be relevant to local communities.
I call these kinds of solutions partial solutions. They are temporal – limited by time, and local – limited by space, and tactical – justified by temporal and local circumstances. A women’s department is itself such a partial solution to the changing problems women face around gender. The establishment of any women’s lounge never reflected a real and timeless right to a small room with couches and an urn regardless of circumstances. This isn’t to say they must be opened up to transgender women. To be transgender is itself to take up a partial solution to gendered culture rather than tell “the truth”. Does this mean that the transgendered woman doesn’t possess a real and timeless right to the implications of their gender identity? I think it does because everything gender embodies is circumstantial rather than eternal. I also think this applies to cis-gender women too and anyone's gender identity.
The obvious correlation to the issue of transgender women in women’s only spaces is “the bathroom wars” currently raging senselessly across the U.S. Once again we would do well to recognize that the division of toilets into men’s and women’s is not intended to reflect a position on ultimate reality. In our own houses we don’t divide toilets that way because it would be impractical. At most gay venues there is a degree of freedom about women using men’s toilets which tends to share the toilet queues more equitably. Nobody is urinating on a scared binary when they use a toilet of any gender or no gender. Whatever policy is reached in any situation only a deliberately partial solution, local to circumstances, and sensitive to immediate needs makes sense. That’s what toilets are to the need to pee.
This is why the North Carolina law that bans any use of a toilet assigned for the gender not on your birth certificate is so silly. It makes a state issue out of what should have been resolved at the most immediate level and encourages everyone to take a winner-takes-all position for or against the law. We have the idiocy of people who look male being forced to use women’s bathrooms because of what’s on their birth certificate in order that women concerned about men in their toilets feel safe. We have the draconian need for women to present ID proving their birth sex to male police officers entering women's bathrooms. On the other hand making one rule for all to allow anyone to use whatever toilet matches the gender they identify with has its own problems. It can lead us with no capacity to deal with creeps like Mike Huckabee wanting to perv on high school girls or put us on a fool’s errand to find the technical point at which transition from one gender to another is sufficient. Encouraging flexibility and sensitivity say at an individual school level would be much wiser. Not blowing up the issue on social media for the sake of outrage is probably too much to hope for.
This has been another puff piece for postmodernism in a way. If we are to avoid modernist solutions to problems we also need to properly understand why they are attractive to us. That means I need to talk about what they do well, particularly how we can use the language of rights to anchor socially just outcomes to timeless reality. That timeless reality might be a fiction but it's been fantastically beneficial to believe in it. Given the ridiculous length of this post however I’ll leave this to be explored in the comments or a future post. I really would enjoy hearing your thoughts.