Alright, this is a very very complicated and sensitive issue which I think about a lot but haven’t talked about too much on this blog precisely because I’m unsure how to articulate it properly. The reason for this is that the current dialogue on LGBT issues tends to be shaped by a Butlerian-Foucauldian paradigm whose assumptions directly conflict with the assumptions of the Lacanian approach to sexual difference; and as a cis male, I do not want to fall into mansplaining, cissplaining or any other sort of condescending “lecture mode”.
Having said that: since I have been asked my opinion on this issue by several people, I’ll give it. The Butlerian-Foucauldian problematic within which queer studies and gender studies tends to operate has some major issues if you try to reconcile it with a dialectical materialist perspective; I will get into these issues shortly. I feel that the Lacanian take on sexual difference works better here: however, in what way such a perspective could avoid taking a reactionary stance on certain issues is somewhat unclear. I have commitment to Lacanian theory as a great tool for socio-political analysis, which (I think) it proves itself to be in other cases; I also have a commitment to fighting cissexism and transphobia. I am unwilling to abandon either of these commitments. I think this is precisely where we need something like philosophy though; I agree with Deleuze that philosophy is about creating and formulating problems rather than finding solutions, and that the correct formulation of a problem is its solution. A lot of the difficulties that arise from the interaction between feminism and the transgender community comes precisely from improper formulation of the problems involved.
Having said this, what is my problem with Butler’s understanding of gender? Well, let me back up for a minute. What constitutes oppression from a Marxist perspective? We can’t reduce all oppression to class oppression; however, it’s equally clear that certain forms of supposed “oppression” would not be considered as such from a Marxist perspective. So, the poor, PoC, women, and the LGBT community are all oppressed; bronies, furries, and other subcultures or “lifestyle choices” are not (as long as we’re not including sexuality under “lifestyle choices”, which — despite common usage — I wouldn’t).
What is the difference? What constitutes genuine oppression from a Marxist perspective? Well, here’s where the “materialist” part of “dialectical materialism” becomes relevant: oppression must be “material” on some level for it to be real. In other words, oppression is related to the material conditions of existence and embodied by material/symbolic structures. As such, it has very little to do with a subject’s feelings or will, at least directly. People can “choose” to be bronies; they cannot “choose” to be poor, or black; they are structurally inscribed in their roles, whether they like it or not. (This is why the idea of being “transethnic” — the way one would be transsexual — strikes us as being so ridiculous.)
Now, this logic applies quite well to almost every other form of oppression outside of the field of sexuality; when we enter this field, it seems to break down. Being gay isn’t a choice, but some degree of agency seems to be involved; and transgenderism, unlike transethnicism, is not only a category we can accept but one we should defend. This is why I think that any thoroughgoing Marxism that wishes not to fall into brocialism needs some sort of supplementary theory to take into account the field of sexuality.
Now, very often Marxists tend to default to the Foucauldian-Butlerian paradigm, which is the most common way of thinking about these issues in left-liberal and non-Marxist-leftist circles — its assumptions have more or less been completely absorbed by the non-academic end of left-activism, for example. The problem with such a paradigm — which emphasizes the “fluidity” and “constructedness” of gender, as well as the potential multiplicity of gender roles — is that, despite Butler’s best efforts (and Gender Trouble is a brilliant book, granted), such a perspective ultimately falls into a kind of voluntarist idealism — we can actively choose to blur the gender binary, because it is in some way “unreal” — i.e. non-material. (More than anything else, I would say that materialism more or less involves the proposition that the conditions for our existence are to a certain extent unavoidable and create certain structures of impossibility; to say that there are no impossibilities is to be an idealist.) Such a view also would tend to lead to some problematic conclusions: making gender a performative “choice” essentially reduces it to the level of a consumer product.
Against this, I would say that the Lacanian view of sexual difference as materially-structurally determined (though not in a biological or essentialist way) avoids some of the bourgeois ideological presuppositions that I’d say underlie the Butlerian approach, and is thus more reconcilable with Marxism — I’d go as far as to say that psychoanalysis is dialectical materialism applied to sexuality. Sex is constructed, just as race and class are, but that doesn’t mean that we can destroy sex, class, and race antagonisms by blurring the lines that separate each side, or by emphasizing that such categories are “fake”. And certainly, most transgender individuals don’t go through the pain and oppression that they experience because they want to “fuck” with the gender binary — rather, they genuinely feel that their experience, as subjects, does not reflect the role they were forced into by society.
Anyway, this still leaves a number of questions open, the biggest one being where, if at all, people who identify socially/structurally as intersex (biology doesn’t matter) fit into this paradigm — honestly, I am not sure. At any rate, as I said, despite the fact that all the implications of the Lacanian position haven’t been elaborated in satisfactory way, I still think it’s worth sticking to and thinking through.
(I should note, by the way, that throughout this post I’ve been using the term “transgender”, whereas — given Copjec’s criticism of gender as a political category, mentioned in the previous post — the more appropriate designation, in terms of the conceptual approach I’m using, would probably be “transsexual”. However, given that the more currently acceptable term among the groups I’m referring to is “transgender” I will use the latter term, as it is not my place to tell oppressed groups what to call themselves.)