Wednesday, October 1, 2014

On empathy

Because I'm a gender critical feminist on the internet, I'm often told I need to "just have some damn empathy" for trans people. As is my wont, I go to the dictionary:

Of course, this would seem like an impossible demand if I listened to the countless trans activists announcing that non-trans people can never know what it is like to be trans, that we shouldn't even ask for a definition of it (even as we are simultaneously expected to voluntarily define ourselves as not-it), that we should simply listen and accept.

Maybe instead of empathy, they really mean sympathy?

I do feel sincere sorrow for anyone who experiences sex dysmorphia, as I would for anyone with a painful medical condition. However, I don't feel pity toward transsexual people. I don't think pity is a very useful emotion. I think many of the people scolding me to be more "empathetic" *do* feel a kind of horrified, disgusted, abject pity about the transsexual experience, which stops them from thinking very much about it at all. And I think this refusal to *look at what's really happening* is what allows people who experience no sex dysmorphia at all to co-opt the transsexual experience for political cover, while spouting obviously anti-woman rhetoric.

But what about this pity? What is so special about the pity some people feel for male transsexuals that they have no problem telling women to give up our language, our spaces, our analysis, just give transwomen anything they want, no questions asked?

(Why do I concentrate on transwomen rather than transmen? Simple: because transmen, who are female, do not have the institutional power to wreck men's boundaries or take away their language.)


An old college friend recently became very ill and nearly died; circulation to her limbs was compromised to such an extent she lost both hands, one foot, and part of another foot. She has five children. Her friends and family were very lucky in fundraising for advanced prosthetics; still, she will never feel any of her kids' hands in her own again. She must struggle through every mundane task, must endure the stares and pity when she goes out in public. The prosthetics chafe all day and come off every night. When I think of her lying in bed, with so many body parts gone, unable to even fluff her own pillow, adjust the blanket or get up to use the bathroom on her own, I am stricken with sorrow.

Some statistics from the Amputee Coalition

Two million amputees in the United States alone. Yet I am not told I must voluntarily identify as a "non-amputee," stop defining humans as bipeds, object to any language implying the use of healthy hands or feet, or in any other way center amputees in my day to day life, much less my politics. I am not told I must play-pretend that prosthetic limbs are just like natural limbs or else my friend might kill herself. Why is the suffering of amputees so qualitatively different from the suffering of transsexuals? Why can we expect amputees to adjust to their new realities and deal with the hardships they face, but human language, feminism and sex-based boundaries must all bend around the feelings of transsexual people?


The pity some people feel for transsexuals renders them reactionary and thoughtless because it is bound up in their own gender expectations. A man "identifying as" a woman is a member of the dominant (superior, default human) class who identifies with the subjugated (inferior, subhuman other) class - someone to be pitied for sure, if you buy into the gender hierarchy. But - no matter their exhaustive denials - these people still know that male people are male, and female people are female. And they do not merely expect female people to empathize and/or sympathize with male people. They expect us to anticipate, prioritize, and indulge the feelings of male people. To empty our female Selves and fill our hearts and minds and bodies back up with the needs and desires of a male Other. 

This is, of course, merely more of the same vis-à-vis the oppression of women. 


I was raised in a sexist family. This means I was told from Day 1, by the people who were supposed to love me the most, that who I was inside was unacceptable for anyone inhabiting a female body. My accomplishments were derided; my failures were exaggerated, punished, often fabricated out of thin air. I lived in fear of violence in my own home, and when I fought back I was punished. I was a math prodigy, but was held back/obstructed not only by my family, but by teachers and school administrators who felt such talents unsuitable for a girl. I've thrown myself on the sword of marriage and step-motherhood only to be told that none of that sacrifice or work matters because I was born to serve. I'm constantly told my body is wrong, misshapen, unlovable by every corner of the media. I've been sexually harassed at work, severely underpaid, ignored, exploited. I've been treated as sub-human by multiple doctors in multiple specialties.

And I'm one of the lucky ones - I'm white, I was born in a rich country, I've worked my way into the middle class. My suffering as a female person still matters. I feel tore up inside. All the time. Tore up, sore, weary. I suffer from agoraphobia and clinical depression, including suicidal ideation. I am only still alive because I found feminist analysis. I was then able to make sense of the world, to understand why people treated me like shit, to understand that I did not deserve that treatment, that I could therefore fight for a better life.

I'm also lucky because in my 30s my parents came to accept me for who I am. I helped my mom come to feminism. Now my mom is gone, passed away from ovarian cancer. I think of her and I'm immediately transported back to a childhood in which I felt trapped, imperiled, hated, fragile, exhausted. Then I think of her own youth, incredibly intelligent but impregnated at age 15 and all life goals out the window. I think of our shared experiences of chronic diseases dismissed by doctors, and I wonder if the cancer would have been caught earlier if we hadn't all assumed the pain was from Crohn's Disease, itself undiagnosed and untreated until her mid-50s because the excruciating abdominal pain was said to be "all in her head." I wonder if I too will develop ovarian cancer, and if I should have the hysterectomy I fought against for over ten years while seeking treatment for uterine fibroids.

But I'm told female biology is a social construct, unimportant, in no need of naming because transwomen don't experience it. And I'm told this dismissive bullshit is feminism.

This triggers me. This makes me feel physically ill and emotionally embattled. Being told I must erase my own experiences and deny my own needs is just more of the same bullying I've experienced all my life. It's just more male supremacy being forced down my throat, trying to choke off my words, my air.

But of course actual women - adult human females - are not allowed to be triggered by sex-based oppression. We're just supposed to shut up, lie back and take it. Any resistance will be framed as either (innate) weakness or (unnatural) selfishness.

But I know the truth, I see it and speak it, no matter if my voice shakes. If transwomen were female, they would be expected to *give* empathy, rather than demand it all for themselves. And if transwomen weren't male, they wouldn't confuse empathy with capitulation.

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