The Antioch Review and Transphobia Couched In Academia

Updated May 11, 2016 9:38pm PDT
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On March 30, 2016, the Antioch Review, one of the longest-running and most established literary magazines in the US, released its Winter 2016 issue. 

It featured an article by the writer Daniel Harris, titled “The Sacred Androgen: The Transgender Debate.” A press release from the journal boasted that the article “is a must-read about one sexual choice for humankind and an issue currently in the news,” while a since-removed blog post claims that Harris “asks us to take our debate to a new level on the topic of transgenders [sic].” 

Harris’s article, as well as the Antioch Review promotional copy about it, claims to articulate a novel stance within a contemporary debate. This putatively novel stance has, moreover, been sidelined or ignored thanks to unnamed but certainly pernicious trans activists. He writes in the article’s introduction:

And yet just as the issue has come to the fore of public awareness, TGs have ambushed the debate and entangled us in a snare of such trivialities as the proper pronouns with which to address them …. [T]hey shame us into silence by ridiculing the blunders we make while trying to come to grips with their unique dilemmas, decrying our curiosity about their bodies as prurience and our unwillingness, or even inability, to enter into their own (often unsuccessful) illusion as narrow-mindedness. 

(Harris 2016, 64)

Harris thus appears as an enlightened, critical outsider, brave enough to take on these spectral bullies and dispel our illusions about our bodies. Just in time, too: “notwithstanding many activists’ attempt to embarrass us into uncritical consensus,” Harris intends to rip the veil off of reality by establishing that “the whole phenomenon of switching one’s gender is a mass delusion.” Science, it seems, will save right-thinking people from the transgender menace.

But Harris in this situation turns out to be just another instance of T.W. Adorno’s child at the piano “searching for a chord never previously heard; the chord, however, was always there” (Adorno 1997, 32). Far from articulating a new and insightful position, Harris in fact recites a very familiar and and surprising long-lived theoretical description of trans people: that transition is the result either of internalized homophobia or “autogynephilia”; that plastic surgeries derive from, and imply the capitulation to, patriarchal fantasies of the female body; that transsexuality in particular is a reactionary expression of gender; that transition implies both the parody and appropriation of the other; and on and on. 

The implicit, unstated bias of his argument, which tilt it heavily towards theorizing the perversions of transsexual women while passing over transsexual men in near-silence, is remarkably familiar as well. So  enlightenment reveals itself as the mystfied rearticulation of previously established ideological fictions, and his purchase on the new turns out to be a repackaging of the old. (This untimeliness appears in its most symptomatic guise in Harris’s rather bizarre anachronisms: he cites AOL chat rooms as an exemplary form of online sociality and consistently refers to trans people as TGs, a term that reached its peak popularity in the 90’s.) 

My aim here is not to attempt to correct Harris’s article on its every mistaken or offensive claim. There are an excess of targets. Nor is it to call attention to the brazen transphobia of the Antioch Review, and the unfortunate implications that the publication of Harris’s article in this venue poses for trans writers. Instead I want to focus on this temporal structure of repetition that disguises its own longstanding history of theorization and licenses Harris’s regurgitation of the rhetorical tropes that underpin his argument.

The first of these tropes is a figurative representation of transsexuals as vapid consumers. Harris cements this image in some straightforwardly misogynist ways as he invokes the cultural archetypes of the “trophy wife or celebrity, anti-heroes of a materialistic culture with whom the TG, having taken advantage of the same merchandising of the body promoted by commercialized medicine, bears a strong and unfortunate resemblance” (Harris 2016, 65). 

The object of consumption thus becomes the body itself, which gains in Harris’s account the status of a commodity, with trans people and other unsavoury characters rendered both as the unwitting dupes of this scam and its central perpetrators. Here the process of commodification takes on ethical weight: medical and surgical techniques of transition violate bodily integrity, while the “delusion” of gender transition and the retrenchment of normative gender roles have, for Harris, negative social and political consequences as well.

The overlap on this point between Harris’s article and such classic texts of trans-exterminationist radical feminism as Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire is not coincidental. For Raymond as well transsexuals are a class of “medical consumers” rendered simultaneously as the passive objects of male-driven medical epistemology and complicit subjects within a vast political project of replacing genuine—that is, cisgender—women with “tokens” fitted to reactionary and patriarchal male desires (Raymond 1979, 13, 26). 

Desire, indeed, is the point: Raymond makes a theoretical distinction between the purportedly conformist and patriarchal desires of straight trans women and the even more sinister and deceptive position of trans lesbians, whose participation in feminist social spaces and political Raymond figures, in her text’s likely most infamous passage, as rape. (As is clear even in summary, the category of transsexual for Raymond is marked as female; trans men pose a theoretical problem she only occasionally attempts to address and more frequently prefers not to speculate about.) 

The work of sexologist Ray Blanchard in the 1980’s elaborated Raymond’s distinction into separate ontological categories determined by the sexual orientation of trans women within birth-assigned gender: Blanchard distinguished “homosexual” transsexuals from trans women of other sexual orientations, whom he identified as primarily sexually attracted to the fantasy of becoming women: “All gender dysphoric males who are not sexually oriented toward men are instead sexually oriented toward the thought or image of themselves as women” (Blanchard 1989, 323; see Serano 2010 for a summary of the clinical and scientific case against this theory). 

Blanchard’s theorization elevated the sexualities of trans women from an object of suspicion, scrutiny, and assumed complicity in patriarchal desires to the cause of transsexuality itself: in Blanchard’s sexological paradigm, gender becomes the site of intervention to allow for illicit sexual pleasures. In making this theoretical move, Blanchard arguably only revised a sexologically classic Freudian position on gender inversion as the result of repressed homosexuality as stated in
Freud’s 1911 essay on Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Mental Illness: Trish Salah, among others, has persuasively argued for this point, most recently in her keynote address at the Trans Temporality conference at the University of Toronto in April 2016. Nonetheless, Blanchard’s own recitation of the Freudian theory in the mid-1980’s raised this theory anew to a position of medical dominance in the world of contemporary psychiatry.

Harris both reiterates Blanchard’s distinction and posits it as a basis for condemning transition, reflecting the pop-psychological views more recently expounded by J. Michael Bailey. In Harris’s article transsexuality and homosexuality are posited as modalities of being that compete for the attention of trans people in a zero-sum game. Transition is thus represented as a capitulation to homophobia, an embrace of heterosexuality according to normative aesthetic and sexual standards. Harris often falls back on this representation, under a furthermore racist and anti-poor cast:

In some less educated and more homophobic cultures, being gay is by definition wanting to be a woman or, in the case of the lesbian, a man. The lower class misunderstands effeminacy and mannishness not as behaviors but as manifestations of an ersatz man or woman, an anomalous composite of the genders. The state of being a homosexual is simplified and to some extent rendered less objectionable as merely another form of heterosexuality, another permutation on the acceptable polarity of the genders, one that denies the homosexual his or her autonomy as an individual existing outside this obsolete antithesis.

(Harris 2016, 67)

Or again, later in the essay:

There is a sense in which transitioning is also a form of genital mutilation, in that the gay man seeks to transform himself into a mere vessel for the heterosexual’s impulses whereas his own libido is depressed to the point of extinction by the gelding effects of hormone replacement therapy.

(ibid., 75)

It is telling to contrast these passages against his open-armed embrace of autogynephilia as a disorder that delimits one category of trans women from another. He writes—without citing his source—that this constitutes the “motivation [to transition] for by far the majority of TGs: straight and bisexual men, who constitute some 70 percent of those who transition. … Sex reassignment is the logical outcome of an excess of heterosexuality, of a love for women so intense that the straight TG tries to transform himself into the object of his desire” (ibid., 75). 

These conflicted representations allow us to confront the central paradoxes of Harris’s ideological schema. In the most direct terms, this paradigm renders being both gay and trans a conceptual impossibility, as straight trans women are rhetorically written off as gay men who shamefully capitulated to homophobia and allowed their sexual desires thus to be erased through a putatively heterosexual encounter; trans women’s expressions of desire for other women becomes rewritten as the misdirected form of her ultimately narcissistic, yet curiously still heterosexual, desire; and gay trans men are passed over in near-total silence. 

The supposed incompatibility of homosexuality and transsexuality subtends and effaces Harris’s cissexism, allowing him to use a putatively queer politics as the rhetorical cover for his violently anti-trans position. In this capacity Harris’s article is only the latest instance of a longstanding tradition diagnosed by Viviane Namaste according to which queer critiques have been articulated through a rhetorical invocation of transgender patently apathetic to the lives of trans people ourselves (Namaste 1996, 9-23).

But in the last instance Harris’s recapitulation of tired, familiar theses turns out to be the point of his critique. His writing is suffused with a kind of Nietzschean resentment at the social movements taking place around him. Harris thus recalls the rhetoric of VICE founder Gavin McInnes whose 2014 Thought Catalogue article resulted in his being fired as a columnist for that website. In the face of a vocal social and cultural trans movement, writers like Harris and McInnes seem to ask: why may they not simply give voice to their bigotry, given the ideological representations of trans people that they presume their audience knows to be true? 

The offense that Harris takes at being forced to question the ontology of gender, its mediation in ideology, and the social practices generated to control and police it is palpable; his response to these critiques is thus simply to fall back on naïve positions he resents having to defend at all. Harris’s posturing as scientific and objective thus collapses into the citation of truisms that have been generated by previous historical moments, here willfully abstracted from their context.

The attempt is at once amusing, alarming, and desperately sad. It would be comforting to think that this bumbling recitation of classic articulations of transphobia will have no concrete material impact. But while Harris’s article is only a drop in the transphobic bucket, in the current negative political environment it can hardly be considered harmless. Harris seems to be as blithely unaware of the traditions that license his own thinking as he is apathetic about their consequences. His trans readers, however, may recognize that he repeats history both as tragedy and as farce.

Adorno, T.W. 1997. Aesthetic Theory, eds. Gretel Adorno and Rolk Tiedemann, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. New York: Continuum.

Bailey, J. Michael. 2003. The Man Who Would be Queen: The Science of Gender-bending and Transsexualism. Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press.

Blanchard, Ray. 1989. “The Classification and Labeling of Nonhomosexual Gender Dysphorias.” Archives of Sexual Behaviour 18:4. 315-34.

Freud, Sigmund. 1958. “Psycho-analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia.” In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey. Toronto: Hogarth Press. 9-82.

Harris, Daniel. 2016. “The Sacred Androgen: The Transgender Debate.” The Antioch Review 74:1. 64-76.

McInnes, Gavin. “Transphobia is Perfectly Natural.” Thought Catalogue. Published 12 August 2014. Accesssed 6 May 2014.

Namaste, Viviane. 1996. “Tragic Misreadings: Queer Theory’s Erasure of Transgender Subjectivity.” Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transgendered and Transsexual People.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 9-23.

Raymond, Janice. 1979. The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male. New York: Beacon Press.

Salah, Trish. “‘Time Isn’t After Us’: Some Tiresian Durations.” Keynote Address. Trans Temporality Conference: Reimagining the linearity of bodies and time, University of Toronto. April 1, 2016.

Serano, Julia. 2010. “The Case Against Autogynephilia.” International Journal of Transgenderism 12:3. 176-87.

Works Cited

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Kay Gabriel is a PhD student in classics at Princeton University. She is also a co-editor of Vetch: a Journal of Trans Poetry and Poetics.