Performative Nuance

Talk to Womens strike, 27/2/18

Yesterday, I gave a talk to bread, roses and hormones too the fourth and final public meeting of the womens strike, with the excellent Kuchenga and Mijke(and, in abstentia, joni cohen). The event was amazing, and we had long and detailed discussions about solidarity between cis and trans women, complicity and colonial history, and the hope that organisations like Womens Strike and Sisters Uncut bring. Here’s what I said(it’s lightly edited, mainly fixing typos because there were many. it is not actually proofread, and I doubt it will be).

The Womens strike is on the 8th of march. In London, we’re meeting at 1pm in Russel square.

So, I’m going to start off in a bit of a weird place. James C Scott is…not central to the feminist cannon. He’s not, as far as I know, ever described himself as a feminist, or published anything that deals explicitly with women oppression. He’s a white, straight, cis guy who writes about anarchism and state power. His magnum opus is a book called seeing like a state, where he discusses how states desire to make people visible and legible to their power. He describes how, when the Spanish empire colonized the Philippines, they would travel from town to town assigning last names to allow colonial administrators to track family relations- prior to this, the Filipinos used a small number of surnames, and this made distinguishing families at large scales difficult, and thus it was far harder to point at a single person as the person with whom the state wished to act upon- whether for taxation, enforcement of law, or any of the other functions.

To assign names, administrators, backed by soldiers, traveled from village to village with an alphabetical book of Hispanic names, assigning each family a last name. To speed matters up, the book was split into sections, and each was given to a regional administrator. Entire villages and regions, thus, were assigned names beginning in a single letter. And, because the law demanded that names passed down via the male linage, the act of this naming, among a thousand other explicit measures, enforced a patriarchal order upon the Philippines, where a previously complex system of genders, with explicit spiritual and social space for transfeminine people existed.

The important thing to see here is not that the Spanish imported colonial patriarchy to the Philippines- this is something we all know. The important thing here is that the Spanish state did this out of a simple desire to see: giving people a last name is not an act of enforcement, it is an act of making visible. And yet it plays a significant part of the creation of colonial patriarchy. For the powerful, the act of looking rearranges the world.
This is where I start, because it’s important to remember this when we move forward and begin to talk about gender and the state, we must remember that simply the act of being seen by the state will change how we are.

When we talk, then, about the hirshfeld institute, in Wiemar Germany and look on the beginning of what we know as modern trans existence, I think the place to begin is with their archives. Their archives are most famous for being burned by the Nazis, destroying, according to liberal trans narratives, decades of our history.

To understand the act of burning the archives like this, we have to see the institute as being born of queer and trans existence, as of representing us accurately. Putting aside whether it’s possible to represent a group of people accurately full stop, I think this is probably counterproductive.

The institute may not have been a part of the Nazi state, but in the years leading up to it, hirshfeld gave tours of queer Berlin bars to the police, convincing them to accept and not carry out violence against their residents. Hirshfelds patients were issued with identification papers that made them exempt from police violence against homosexuals and proto-trans people. These were “real men and women” as opposed to degenerate cross dressers. The hirshfeld institute was a tool for the state to see, and in seeing, the institute creates the modern trans person- a legitimate person of their acquired gender, rather than a broken failure of a human being. And this is the basis for all further trans healthcare, and indeed, state recognition of trans people.

At the same time, hirshfeld and his contemporaries are going further- molding patients into these visions of perfect womanhood. This womanhood, it should be noted, includes a biological reproduction- Lili Elbe famously dies not from hormone therapy(in the form of castration and an implanted ovary) but from the attempt to make her able to bear children. The state, through the clinic, is attempting to make the scary degenerate cross dressers fit into it’s social and economic visions, and killing us in the process.

And this tradition is, actually, the same one as the other parallel traditions of the denial of bodily autonomy. In the postwar era, following the research of hirshfeld, the american eugenicists begin to experiment with hormones on the population of Puerto Rico, especially focusing on sex workers. The birth control pill they develop has massive side effects, and their experimentation leaves thousands of people forced into obscure and dangerous hormone regimes. But no-one cares, because they achieved their goal- controlling the population of Puerto Rico, and they were only going to be using these pills to further control women, mainly working class women, who they don’t want breeding.

The same research on Puerto Rico becomes the basis of the basis of the initial experiments with creating housewives in the first gender clinics, and later, in san Francisco, there begin experiments similar to hirshfelds, respectable envoys organizing with the police and local clinics to create a regime of transition, turning angry sex working street queens, many of whom were self medding and brutalized, into women who can be banished to suburbia and cease causing a nuisance.

From here, we can trace a straight line through trans history- from Hirshfeld to Harry Benjamin to Puerto Rico to charring cross to the contemporary GIC, we have systems designed, at the end of the day to create housewives and bread winning husbands, as envisioned by the weimar republic.

With time, the image of gender as desired by the state has shifted, moving from housewife to career woman who does it all, and from providing husband to the mustached hipster entrepreneur that until recently adorned the charring cross GIC waiting room.

That’s, then, a reading of trans healthcare history- not as friendly doctors helping us on a journey from one gender to another, but one which understands it as part of a eugenicist tradition of population thinking, fundamentally one of state control.

There are, I think, two lessons here: The first is that our liberation will never come from the medical establishment. Lobbying to make the GIC more open and even measures calling for over the counter HRT are always going to be measures which, through the guise of “public health” become eugenic measures- after all, birth control is available over the counter across the country, and yet it is still seen as both a profit center- witness the boots debacle with the morning after pill- and a measure for population control. Our liberation will come from our own supply chains for hormones, and reaching back up the supply chain until eventually we own the factories, and direct the research, under our own power.

This will, in itself, be a revolution, and is impossible without parallel measures, not just to provide trans people with housing and food, but to liberate all the parallel groups that engage in this struggle- ending prisons, and ending the culture of disposability we engage in among ourselves, ending borders and our own policing of access to any services, and ending poverty. These steps towards revolution can be taken one at a time, and when we reach the situation I describe we’ll undoubtedly have more steps to take- liberation is a horizon to walk towards, not a static end state. And in taking these steps, in claiming hormone supply chains and producing autonomous understandings of our bodies, we will help cis women as well, because systems we build allowing bodily autonomy will bring bodily autonomy to all, without the ideologies of eugenics that underlay all the systems we point at as producing bodily autonomy currently.

The other lesson is that these steps are going to happen slowly, and we need to survive today, and that progress is not going to be absolute. Countless activist groups existed in the time I described, and improved access to bodily autonomy massively, while still failing to remove the colonial and eugenicist base of it. We can and should demand the end of the GIC, and the extradition of all colonial history from the research that guides our attempts to modify our bodies. but, we cannot do it all at once. We can begin by having advocates at every GIC appointment, and funding communal medical stockpiles, and building summaries of medical knowledge so we’re not working on word of mouth.

Advocating at the GIC and telling people that they’re not undertaking safe hormone regimes, no matter what their Facebook group says, are not in fact counterrevolutionary, but the core of the revolution.

Our revolution begins(and ends) with keeping people alive, fed, and medicated, not with writing manifestos, or speaking on this church stage.