SHARING SCARS, HEALING OURSELVES:

 

 

Guidotto, N. (2005). Sharing scars, healing ourselves: Theory in praxis.  Canadian Online Journal for Queer Studies in Education, 3(1).

 

SHARING SCARS, HEALING OURSELVES: THEORY IN PRAXIS

Nadia Guidotto

York University

 

Three incisions, like a triangle, were made near to my nipples and through these wounds all the breast tissue that remained in me was taken out.  The operation was called a bilateral mastectomy.  The incisions were sewn up and there was my chest, neat and flat … He said before he cut me:  ‘In time, the scars will barely be visible, but the wounds will take a few months to heal’ (Tremain, 1993, p. 254).

 

Breavman knows a girl named Shell whose ears were pierced so she could wear the long filigree earrings.  The punctures festered and now she has a tiny scar in each earlobe … A bullet broke the flesh of his father’s arm as he rose out of a trench.  It comforts a man with coronary thrombosis to bear a wound taken in combat … His mother regarded her whole body as a scar grown over some earlier perfection which she sought in mirrors and windows and hub-caps. Children show scars like medals.  Lovers use them as secrets to reveal.  A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh (Cohen, 1963, p. 3).

 

Behind every scar, there is a narrative, a visible marker of a memory inscribed onto the skin.  We tend to think about scars as sites of pain, incisions where we have been violated or hurt.  However, in this presentation I want to challenge this conception.  Dr. Brownstein, a doctor who specializes in gender related surgery, writes: “The process of wound healing following surgery is complex and a scar is an inevitable consequence of healing following any surgical procedure” (Brownstein, 2005, 2).  In his conception, the scar is no longer the wound, it is the healing

            As E. McDonald mused, this is what identities should do for us; they should be the healing (2002).  But how do we begin this healing process?  The title of this paper offers a clue:  sharing scars, healing ourselves.  Granted, we all have scars for various reasons - like the quotations above suggest.  Some are remnants of violence inflicted upon us, and some are self-inflicted.  Some stick with us for our entire lives while others fade with time.  But most of us have scars, and most of us have stories to share about them.  These narratives will not all be the same, but our scars provide a point of departure for storytelling.  They can initiate dialogue, and in a word, healing. 

            Given mediating factors like time, location, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, class and ability, among a host of other dynamics that influence our lived experienced, I can think of nothing concrete that truly unites us in our human condition apart from the very fact of our material embodiment.  Upon that fleshy canvas our lives are written, and our scars chronicle the story.  In this essay, I invite the reader to feel out this metaphor in the context of queer history and see where it might take us in our struggle for social justice.  To begin this project then, I shall discuss these three steps in the life of our bodies’ stories:  the wound, the scar and the healing.  In doing so, I will outline what role identity can and cannot play in the healing process, and how we can move forward, despite our differences.

Inflicting Wounds:  Negative Interpretations of Trans Subjects

 

Before the body can produce a scar, something has to break the skin.  At this point of entry, sometimes we may experience bleeding or discomfort.  We may experience pain and trauma.  In this section, I will discuss various interpretations of transsexuality and transgenderism in North America and explain how these perspectives have wounded trans subjects.

“Transsexual” was not really a pronounced subjectivity until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when medical practitioners and sexologists set out to distinguish different types of human species.  During this time, they developed the term homosexual inversion, which conflated gender variance with sexual orientation. For example, male homosexuals were believed to be men “…born with a strong feminine element or psyche” while female homosexuals were considered women “…born with a strong masculine drive” (Sullivan, 2003, p. 4). In the latter part of this century, gender variance has partially been taken out the overall definition of homosexuality within medical discourse and relocated within the category of transsexuality (Halberstam, 1998). The pathologization of transsexuality persists today, as it is often attributed to abnormal psychological development.   

            This pathologization may explain the general apathy of some feminists who rejected transfolk as oppressed subjects in their own right since they largely attributed their “condition” to psychological abnormality, thus conceptualizing them in medical terms.  However, this was not the only vision of the relationship between transsexuality and feminism, as other theorists held more sinister beliefs.  Sheila Jeffreys viewed transfolk as “…more loyalists than rebels,” (as cited in Sullivan, 2003, p.106) while Janice Raymond saw instances of transsexuality as “…epitomizing patriarchy’s attempt to appropriate or even annihilate ‘real’ women” (as cited in Sullivan, 2003, p.108).  In both of these assessments, the desire to transgress one’s biological sex was perceived as a threat to feminist goals.  This may be because in such analyses, there is an assumption being made about what bodies look like and how they should function.  That is, there is an assumption that certain biologies lead automatically to certain psychologies and behaviours.  In the case of male-to-female transsexuality, for example, there is a belief that being born with a penis predisposes one to patriarchal tendencies, regardless of what the person feels about herself.  Or in the case of female-to-male (FTM) transsexuality, in the context of feminist struggle, FTMs are seen as trying to “jump ship” in order to avoid struggle and reap the privileges of maleness in a patriarchal society.  They are seen as denying some “innate” femininity and thereby denigrating the femininity of women everywhere.  This line of thinking is problematic for transfolk specifically, but also for society generally, because it binds us all to binary and essentialist notions of gender.  In this way, instead of furthering the position of women in a patriarchal society, it severely limits them to a particular role and way of being.

            Unfortunately, these negative interpretations of transfolk were not only present in feminist theory; gays and lesbians also adopted policies and ideas about transsexuality that were less than sympathetic.  As trans activist Riki Anne Wilchins (1997) notes of the gay and lesbian movement, “While the idea of such a movement sounds straightforward enough, in application it functions like a sieve, filtering out any issue not purely focused on sexual orientation” (p. 83).  As such, the needs of transfolk were not adequately addressed, since their issues were seen to be gender-related, and not expressly tied to sexuality.  

            The effects of such interpretations were troubling, to say the least.  Medical discourse constructed transsexuality as a disease or pathology, and continues to reproduce binary and essentialist notions of gender.  Some feminists denied transfolk access to much needed support centers and women-only spaces, among other feminist group activities, based on essentialist notions of sex/gender.  Gay, lesbian and queer groups often ignored trans needs, or only acknowledged them superficially.  With so few allies, many wounds were left to bleed.    

Scars:  Ad/Dressing the Wounds

Thankfully, the body produces its own scars to close wounds[1], and eventually, pockets of trans-activists sprang up to challenge more negative or limited perspectives.  In the face of some feminist’s initial rejection of trans subjects, many transfolk broke off to form specifically trans-activist organizations and theories.  Also, as a result of trans-lobbying, feminist groups have since been forced to reassess their internal politics and reorganize their agendas so as to recognize how oppression intersects with a host of other factors not limited to gender, but also to race, ability, class, etc. 

Similar adjustments were made within lesbian and gay organizations. As a result of the challenges posed by marginalized groups within the movement, some groups now prefer to adopt the queer affiliation so as not to limit themselves to lesbian and gay commitments.  Others have added a “T” (for “Trans”) to their acronyms.  True, sometimes it is mere tokenism; however, in other cases it represents a genuine response to critiques, a recognition that gender identity, while it may overlap at times with sexual orientation, deserves independent consideration so as to serve a broader community with diverse needs.   Indeed, it is not only the existence of trans-issues that forced the change, but additional fracturing based on other issues including, but not limited to, bisexuality, intersexuality, etc.  

While identity based movements excluded transfolk on the basis of essentialist notions of what a “real” woman was or what constituted the “true” gay agenda, queer theorists tried to destabilize fixed identity categories.   In doing so however, many trans-activists and theorists felt like their day-to-day needs were not being met.  For example, Vivian Namaste (2000) has expressed skepticism of queer theory’s ability to adequately address and contribute positively to the lives of transfolk.  She writes,

Critics in queer theory write page after page on the inherent liberation of transgressing normative sex/gender codes, but they have nothing to say about the precarious position of the transsexual woman who is battered and who is unable to access a woman’s shelter because she was not born a biological woman (p. 9-10).

Queer theory emerged exclusively as an academic pursuit.  As such, it was often articulated in abstract and inaccessible language, and dealt with the discursive construction of identities through literature and culture.  In other words, this limited scope denied the social aspects of living life as the “other” and as a result, many interpreted queer theory as an ivory tower ideology that had little relevance to the average transperson living in society. 

This was also the critique leveled against Judith Butler’s work in Gender Trouble (1990).  Her example of the drag act became a pivotal illustration of queer theory and the notion of performativity.  The drag queen became the archetype of the constructedness of gender, and called into question the “realness” of the categories of woman and man.  However, while this idea has libratory potential for those whose gender is not clear-cut, critics found this illustration problematic.  For example, MacDonald (2000) worries that  “…postmodern theory assimilates transgender to its own intellectual project” (p. 283), and thus, the drag queen and other trans figures become appropriated by queer theory as theoretical fodder.  Namaste (2000) also points out that Butler’s concept of gender as performance does not account for the context of the stage and the drag act.  The performance is a spectacle; a show meant to titillate the (usually) gay male viewer.   Outside these parameters, the drag queen may be subject to hostility.  Namaste summarizes, “The political objections to this field are clear: queer theory begins its analysis with little thought of the individuals designated as the objects of study” (p.16).  Butler’s argument concerning drag and the performativity of gender shows little concern for the lived experience of people who live their lives outside the prescribed gender codes.  While performativity may explain how gendered acts and symbols become reproduced over time, the theory does little to address the immediate needs of transfolk. 

Healing:  Honouring Scars, Building Bridges

These charges against queer theory are important, but I do not think they necessarily negate the relevance of its ideas.  Although Butler may not be a sociologist, her initial writings on gender inspired others to respond and fill in the gaps.  For example, Namaste, while critical of queer theory, formulated a post-structural sociology to address the immediate concerns of transfolk.  Trans activists like Riki Anne Wilchins have also used aspects of queer theory to break down essentialist notions of gender, while simultaneously campaigning for such issues as access to healthcare.  Indeed, Butler has taken steps to give queer theory a firmer social grounding.  In her recent book, Undoing Gender (2004), Butler makes a conscious effort to tie queer theory to the lived experience.  While I am unaware if this is a direct response to her critics, this latest work seems to address the critique that the trans subject is little more than queer theory’s martyr.  In her introduction, she discusses the criteria necessary to live the “livable life,” citing various factors, such as the right “to breathe, to desire, to love” (p. 8), all of which seem to root the subject in a grounded human experience, not abstract theory.  She also revisits the trans-subject directly, but she does so in a way that ties theory to practice.  For example, she discusses how trans-subjects are forced to claim they have “gender identity disorder” in order to receive access to sexual reassignment surgery, even though regurgitating medical discourse serves to further pathologize and stigmatize transsexuality.  In this way, Butler addresses the social reality of many transsexuals while simultaneously maintaining a critical posture towards the system that constructs that reality.   

Butler (2004) also addresses the critique that queer theory exploits the transgender subject as a subversive hero. Many transfolk are uncomfortable with the idea that their social position makes them automatic gender rebels.  However, while queer theory does focus on the constructedness of identity, it does not necessarily claim that people should not adopt particular identities.   Instead, as Butler clarifies, “…more important than any presupposition about the plasticity of identity or indeed its retrograde status is queer theory’s claim to be opposed to the unwanted legislation of identity” (p. 7). The claim is not that identities should be abolished; but rather, we must work to destabilize the system that ties masculinity and femininity to certain bodies.  Envisioned in this way, we deconstruct gender to accommodate a spectrum of identities, ones that are not necessarily attached to specific genitalia or chromosomes.

Put another way, we might be better served by shifting our focus towards common issues and values, not identity, which is not to say that identities do not matter.  On the contrary, they are vitally important to our sense of Self.  However, in terms of political mobilization, demarcating group membership at the outset is a dangerous strategy.  As we have seen from the experience of transgendered and transsexual people, their voices have been silenced as a result of such types of organizing.  Yet on the other hand, theorizing identity as completely relativistic is also dangerous because it assumes that identities are mere constructs and thus are not taken seriously. 

The alternative - shifting towards common issues or values - is beneficial for a variety of reasons.  By directing focus away from identities, people are able to actually develop their identities.  This may seem paradoxical, but it need not be.  When attention is turned toward an issue or common value, then identity categories do not have to be solidified or demarcated in order for political strategizing to begin.  Identities in this context can grow, develop, be adopted or left behind. Moreover, a pleasant side effect of this type of organizing is that when people from different walks of life come together, they can actually educate each other about their identity and how it may have influenced their particular interest or stakes in the issue.  In this way, we can make room for open dialogue, and we can begin to critically assess the intersectionality of different types of oppression.  This is what I call sharing scars:  two or more people showing each other how they have been marked, and then using that narrative as a starting point for discussion.  For example, Minnie Bruce Pratt writes,

But I began when I jumped from my edge and outside myself, into radical change, for love—simply love—for myself and for other women.  I acted on that love by becoming a lesbian, falling in love with and becoming sexual with a particular woman; and this love led me directly, but by a complicated way, to work against racism and anti-Semitism (1998, p. 36).

In this quotation, Pratt begins her quest for social justice rather inadvertently - she simply, fell in love.  Through this relationship, she learned about anti-Semitism and racism, and by “sharing scars” with her lover, she became involved in wider struggles for social reform.  But this example is only one of many, and I will address several other examples to illustrate the point further.

First, I want to examine mastectomies because this procedure is both literal and metaphorical in its reference to the scar.  In my introductory quotation from Sacred Country (Tremain, 1993), we see how the mastectomy may be an integral procedure for a transman.[2]  The scars that remain after such a surgery etch a mark onto the skin, signaling simultaneously the shedding of an old, uncomfortable flesh for a new embodiment.  But transmen are not the only people who have breasts removed.  Indeed, women from all walks of life, trans or not, get mastectomies to excise cancer from their bodies.  In either scenario, while the motivation might be different, the impact on a person’s sense of self is remarkable.  For a transman, the development of breasts may be a traumatic experience.  Some have reported a sense of not being in the right body (Prosser, 1998).  The removal of the breasts in such cases is a way to finally feel at home in the skin, providing a sense of harmony between mind and body.  For many women who have mastectomies because of cancer, often the reverse occurs.  Audre Lorde, for example, describes her distress after getting a mastectomy, unsure of how she will relate to her lover or even to herself.    She ponders, “What is it like to be making love to a woman and have only one breast brushing against her?” (as cited in Prosser, 1998, p. 95).   In Lorde’s case, the absence of the breast deeply affects her identity both as a woman and as a lesbian. 

Interestingly, when I started researching the scar as a metaphor, and looking at how mastectomies were an example of what I was talking about, I stumbled across a relevant passage in Butler’s (2004) book:

Although I’m not aware of coalitions of breast-cancer survivors and transsexuals, I can see how a movement could easily emerge whose main demand would be to petition insurance companies to recognize the role of autonomy in producing and maintaining primary and secondary sex characteristics (p. 86).

In this quotation, Butler is referring to the situation in which transsexual or transgendered people have to prove that they have “gender identity disorder” before insurance will cover the costs incurred by having one’s breasts removed.  Butler compares this to the experience of a butch woman who had a cancerous breast removed and wanted the other removed as well as a preventative measure.  However, she was not covered for the second removal unless she presented herself as “trans,” and was certified as having gender identity disorder.  In this scenario, pathologizing one’s identity becomes the only way for many people to get the surgery they want.  Butler (2004) sees this as problematic.  She writes of people who claim to have gender identity disorder,

… though it may well serve an individual’s important needs to secure status and funding for a transition, it may well be used by the medical and psychiatric establishments to extend its pathologizing influence on populations of transsexuals, trans youth, and lesbian, bi-, and gay youth as well (p. 88).

Hence, the current system acts as a double-edged sword.  It helps people who need the funding for surgery, but it contributes to the pathology that continues to deny those same people certain rights and liberties in other aspects of their lives like child custody, employment, housing, etc.

            One of the most important points Butler makes, as it relates to my topic, is that some women struggle to keep their breasts as an important part of their identity, while others let them go without hesitation.  Using the scar metaphor, we can begin to explore why this is so.  Mastectomy scars can act as a starting point to question how social structures and relations of power contribute to how people view their bodies.  Discussions can emerge about gender in general, inspiring questions like, Why is it important for some to keep breasts while others excise them more readily?  This may be expanded to include women who have scars on their breasts from augmentation or reduction.   Do media representations of ideal femininity influence a woman, trans or otherwise, to enlarge her breasts?  What about male chests?  Surely, the Adonis-like figures in magazine ads can create pressure for men, trans or otherwise, to build rock-hard pectoral muscles.  All of these issues point to wider discussions that can emerge from a coalitional approach or scar-sharing. 

Another example I want to address is the apparent alliance between prostitutes and trans people.  Some transwomen become prostitutes, according to Namaste (2000), to either pay for their health care or because prostitution is the only work available to them. If this is the case, trans sex workers share common issues with non-trans sex workers even though they do not share the same identities.  For example, there may be similar concerns around access to healthcare. 

Ultimately, coalitions may form because of a particular relationship to power.  Indeed, many trans people are subject to violence because they don’t fit neatly into the gender codes of society, and it is on such a basis that people who live in the margins of society may unite in the struggle to end violence; the struggle to make life livable.  From this starting point, we may build a variety of coalitions, for what makes life livable varies from person to person.  In Namaste's analysis, trans people often feel alienated from gay and lesbian politics.  In such cases, coalitions with other groups might be more politically fruitful, depending on what the issues are.  In the end, a focus on shared issues and values seems to be the best political strategy.  In this way, we may maintain our focus on what we are fighting for, while at the same time, we lessen our chances of developing an exclusionary politic.   

In order to make workable, inclusive coalitions however, it is not enough to merely state points of connection.  More substantial theoretical and practical work has to be done.  For example, we have to recognize that just because we share a common value or have a shared interest in a particular issue, our experiences are not necessarily the same as others’.   Instead, it is important that we critically examine our relationship to a particular issue, how our various identities connect us to it, and what makes our experience different from that of others.   Furthermore, at various times, we are implicated as an oppressor and we have to take responsibility for our position.  Even if I am not directly advocating racist policies, for example, I have to be conscious of my white privilege.  In this way, approaching a coalition becomes more reflexive.

Conclusion

Ultimately, we must challenge the binaries that constrict and maintain structures of oppression.  In doing so, we can begin to see how certain types of oppression can be shared between people, regardless of their labels.  By identifying those commonalities, we can build bridges across difference, and fight against a particular injustice from various perspectives.  As Elvia Arriola states, “If you are lesbian, gay, a woman or heterosexual, the transgendered experience may not be your experience, but the thinking that undergirds their discrimination must be made our experience” (1997, p. 26).

In my opinion, this assessment can be further extended if we consider that the task is not to make it our experience, but to recognize that it is already part of our experience in a certain sense.  I am not suggesting that non-trans people can or should appropriate the trans-experience.  However, I would suggest that we are not outside of the trans-experience either, as detached spectators.  We are all affected by, and help to maintain, systems of sex/gender/race/class in our society.  As Maria Lugones and Vicky Spelman (1986) write, “the task at hand for you is one of extraordinary difficulty….[It] calls for circumspection, for questioning of yourselves and your roles in your own culture” (p.30).  Self-reflection might be difficult, but it is crucial if we are to understand how we can be both the oppressed and the oppressor, and how we may shift between those roles.  Either way, we are all implicated.  For example, a white, heterosexual, middle class, female-embodied cheerleader might be struggling with an eating disorder.  The social pressure placed on her to present her body in a certain way is a gender issue.  Likewise, a man who is socialized to be macho risks his own life and others when he is expected to act like “real man” and engage in violent behaviour to assert his masculinity.  This can be seen as a bridge between people who face oppression because of their sex, or because of the expectations of their gender.  In such ways as these, gender oppression is a problem for us all.   As such, we must take part in undoing these structures since they “make life unlivable” (Butler, 2004, p.4) for some, while they simultaneously narrow the scope of gender expression for us all.

If our identities and our scars are going to help us, they have to stop being the wound.   They have to stop being the basis for exclusion.  If we really want to heal, we should look toward what Wendy Brown calls “postidentity political positions” that would “potentially replace a politics of difference with a politics of diversity” (Brown, 1997, p.51).  In other words, identities can and should remain as important expressions of Self, but not necessarily as foundations for political organizing.  What may result would be an expanded political base, with a broader range of both goals and participants.  As Brown (1997) notes, we begin having

…public conversations with each other, arguing from a vision about the common (“what I want for us”) rather than from identity (“who I am”), and from explicitly postulated norms and potential common values rather than from false essentialism or unreconstructed private interest (p.51).

We begin this process by engaging in constant, critical self-reflection and a genuine respect for the experience of others.  Through such engagement, we may begin to see how something as personal as a scar may link us to others.  Our scars would no longer be wounds, but points of departure from which we could begin to heal ourselves, and each other. 

Notes

 

[1] I suspect this metaphor falls short when dealing with hemophilia and other conditions that inhibit clotting. 

2 I use the term “may” in this sentence because not all transfolk chose surgical means to express their identity.  

References

Arriola, E. (1997). Law and the gendered politics of identity: Who owns the label lesbian?  Women's LJ 8(1), 1-29.

Brown, W. (1997). States of injury:  Power and freedom in late modernity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Brownstein, M.  (2005). Surgical scarring.  Retrieved November 14, 2004, from http://www.brownsteinmd.com/installment1.html

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (2004). Undoing gender. New York: Routledge.

Cohen, L. (1963). The favourite game.  New York: The Viking Press.

Halberstam, J.  (1998). Female masculinity. Durham: Duke University Press.

Lugones, M. C. & E. V. Spelman.  (1986). Have we got a theory for you! Feminist theory, cultural imperialism and the demand for ‘the woman’s voice.’  In Women and values: Readings in recent feminist philosophy (pp. 19-31).  Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Co.

MacDonald, E. (2002). Transgender/Transsexual - Theorizing, organizing, cultural production. Conference tape. Toronto: York University.

MacDonald, E.  (2000). Critical identities: Rethinking feminism though transgender politics.  In B. Crow and L. Gotell (Eds.), Open boundaries:  A Canadian women studies reader (282-290). Toronto: Prentice Hall.

Namaste, V.  (2000). Invisible lives:  The erasure of transsexual and transgendered people. Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press.

Pratt, M.B. (1998). Identity:  Skin, blood, heart.  In E. Bulkin, M. Bruce Pratt & B. Smith (Eds.), Yours in struggle:  Three feminist perspectives on anti-Semitism and racism (pp. 27-82).  Berkeley:  SPD/Small Press Distribution, Inc.

Prosser, J.  (1998). Second skins: The body narratives of transsexuality.  New York: Columbia University Press.

Sullivan, N. (2003). A critical introduction to queer theory.  New York: New York University Press.

Tremain, R.  (1993). Sacred country.  New York: Atheneum.

Wilchins, R.A.  (1997). Read my lips: Sexual subversion and the end of gender. Ithaca: Firebrand Books.

 



 

 



Canadian Online Journal of Queer Studies in Education/ Le journal canadien pour les tudes queer en ducation . ISSN: 1710-7598