Is transgederism liberal?

Notes about transsexuality, Palestinian-hybridity, and subjectivity in liberalism


1) Is transgederism humanist/liberal?

According to one typical narrative of ‘trans people,’ certain individuals ‘have always known that they were a man/woman locked in the wrong body.’ (By the way, the following analysis is equally true for cisgenders, who also, albeit silently, ‘know’ that they are inside the correct body). This narrative is anti-queer in its acceptance of normative definitiveness of categories of sex (men/women) and gender (masculine/feminine), as well as their respective alliance.

More importantly, such narratives assume that a subject can rise above a gender-sex ‘mistake,’ listen to one’s body (neutralisation), ‘know it,’ t and then want to, or demand to, or actually correct it, at ‘will.’ In this way, gender is ‘chosen’ or ‘sensed’ by an individual, and is not a latent social discursive structure (unlike race or class). Put another way, to say that you ‘have always known your true identity’ is a practice that reproduces subjectivity (against the poststructuralist view that subjectivity is created by discourse, and that individuality is a concept that in itself needs to be critically contextualised with socio-political-cultural-historical context(s)). The above narrative is arguably part of the naturalised liberalist zeitgeist that foster it, where individual’s agency is exaggerated.

Moreover, there is a certain similarity in form (and humanism) between the individual’s knowledge or choice of gender, and a supposed individual ‘choice’ of religious affiliation, where, in our time, religious identity (including secularity, which is sociologically a religion) is ‘chosen,’ and (allegedly) not born into, thus subordinating religion to the secular logic of liberalism and the liberal state. If religion is no longer a collective dictation (e.g. I can stop being Jewish once I don’t believe in God), and if you can choose your own religion, then you can also ‘choose’ your gender, rather then be a subject of gender structures.

Compare this notion to the inability to choose class or race, and see what I mean.

So, is transgenderism radical or liberal? Resisting or reinforcing categories? My intention here is to point to the way in which, despite the supposed fluidity between categories that ‘trans-‘ needs and supports, the above transgenderist argument (‘I’ve always known…’) is part of the individualised-liberal discourse.

True, my thought is situated with my being a heterosexual cisgender men (to the extent that I ‘believe’ in these categories, and that they are, as well as we are, undynamic). Yet, my aim is not to discourage in any way people from living more happily and being accepted in their ways of life, or to be unsolidaric with those who resist gender oppression(s). Rather, to raise a social scientist’s deliberation, which have implications that go far beyond issues of sex or gender. For example, about subjectivity and liberalism, or about problems of working with self-definitions of identity. (As a social scientist, categories are crucial for analyses, unlike as an activist or a politician where I would feel easier to object them, even though I know that a separation between my two identities is also problematic and fictitious).


2) Against self-definition: The case of Israeli-Palestinians

Let me exemplify this with another problem. State agencies’ forms often ask me to consider to anonymously disclose my ethnicity, gender, etc. They ask whether I define myself as white? Jewish? And so on. But, to what extent should macro-social analysts ‘respect’ the way people define themselves? This is a serious problematique in the ethics and practicality of historians and social scientists. It is very nice that others won’t impose a collective identity on me, but surely, one does not stop being white or black by defining oneself differently, as if the material and other capitals and realities that make one ‘white’ disappear with the new identity claim, or add if the ‘passing’ traits don’t matter. Arguably, self-definition, is equally problematic to the other alternative, and it suffers from the same subjectifying illusion that one can choose one’s identity.

I’ve encountered this problem when I sought a useful analytical terminology for groups in Israel-Palestine. I needed to describe the loose group of Palestinian-Arabs who (normally) have Israeli citizenship or residence. The most common term in contemporary research is ‘Palestinian citizens of Israel,’ which is itself a historical response to the Zionist-imposed ‘Arab-Israelis,’ that minoritises, erased and denied the group’s Palestinian-ness. Inspired by hybrid categories like (the-also-externally-imposed) Arab-Jews, I felt that the existing term was an antithetic response, that resulted in excessive rejection or denial of the group’s Israeli-ness to merely a formality, as well as subordinating the entire analysis to a citizenship/statist discourse. Instead, I opted to describe the group through the social-cultural-political hybridity of its praxis and culture that I’ve observed, and have proposed the hitherto-oxymoronic Israeli-Palestinians as a Bhabhaian liminality category (partially following Hunaida Ghanem). As an ethnographer, I asked my informants and interviewees what they feel about it. Many have agreed with it, but some did not want to be described as Israelis, presumably for national reasons, and surely me being a Jewish-Israeli, proposing Israeliness to their ‘identity’ is anything but unproblematic or uncharged, etc. So, to whom of them should I listen? If they are a group, how should I refer to it? Must I use existing definitions? And, who am I, especially with all my knowledge positioned in Zionist privileges, to impose a quasi-subaltern definition? Well, I still think that, to the extent that this is a group, Israeli-Palestinians is a very good and useful analytical option.

Of course, this is not about the ability to impose, or have better morale, or insight, to ‘know’ what a group ‘is.’ This is not an ontological argument, but abour the epistemological analytical usefulness of constructs, that effectively have constitutive power too.

Conclusively, my contention here is with the subjectifying illusion that identity is necessarily known to, or can be ‘chosen’ by, the subject(s). This is also a concern with who has the permission to narrate and nominate. While I am concerned with political impositions and repressions, I also fear the absurdities and blindnesses in depending solely on self-definitions. (And, not sure it’s the same, but, what if you say you’re not a racist or a sexist? [Answer: You don’t get to decide…]). Can anyone look outside the Zeitgeist, discourse and ideologies that inform these categories? If not, why should self-definitions be preferred? And when is it okay for (situated!) analysts, who spend time observing, reflecting and deliberating, to propose an unpopular and politically-charged title (which might also be more acceptable later on).

(You might also be interested in thoughts I drafted about the popular etymology of ‘gender’ and ‘sex’)


  1. […] In this brief note, I would like to ponder the lingual epistemological meaning of the popular etymology unfolding in front of our eyes and ears in the above examples, about the way gender and sex are gravitating towards each other in popular un/wisdom, (which also disobeys the post-Linguistic-Turn’s belief that a language can construct a reality and modify norms). It seems that in popular use, one is inherently born with/into a gender, (and therefore in medical fields, it is called born gender), whereas the individual has the power to ‘willingly’ change it. […]


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