Episode 26: Trano-a-Trano with Grace Lavery

Corinna arranges a conversation with Grace Lavery, associate professor at UC Berkeley and outspoken trans activist. The result is almost as limitless and formless as what a “woman” is.

Grace Lavery: https://english.berkeley.edu/profiles/386


PARTIAL TRANSCIPT! Thank you generous listener who transcribed this.

C: thank you for making time with us today.

GL: Oh I’m so glad to be here. Yeah, I’m excited. Uh it takes me away from a rather grim thing that I’m otherwise doing today which I will try not to have in the back of my head that I’m waiting to take receipts of um the fi— the reports that has been written um by a security firm that I hired after I started getting a lot of death threats a few months ago, about a year ago now, to see how serious the threats were I guess, and it’s taken him a few months to do this…

C: Mmm.

GL: …um anyway if I seem a little distracted it’s because somewhere in cyberspace right now is a long document full of a list of everything people have ever said about me (laughs), um I’m feeling very self-conscious about that. 

C. Well that’s, uh, an interesting place to start actually. because—

GL: Oh!

C: I think both of us, Nina and I can talk about uh similar sorts of cases that we’ve had with uh receiving threats or that sort of communication from people who are on quote the other side who are trying to use uh intimidation as a tactic for silencing us.

GL: Yeah. Sorry to hear that. I’m-I’m devastated, that’s-that’s terrible. I would I mean I’m, it seems very easy to say from the comfort of this kind of thing but I you know, you have my absolute solidarity and sympathy in that that’s not acceptable in the least. 

And, one of the things that I make in the space is that I realized at some point earlier this year that at least some or a portion of the amount of hate that I was receiving it seriously impacted my ability to do my job at this point but some portion of it actually had nothing to do with anything particular that I’d said and i think that there was some portion of it that was coming fairly directly from meddlesome third parties who had no interest in uh— 

C: Mmm.

GL: …uh the issues at stake at all and the reason that I, the way I was able to work this out was because Jesse Singal with whom I disagree on more or less everything wrote to me to say that someone had been signing him up for my Substack newsletter again and again and then when we looked at it we realized that that was happening at the same exact time as someone was signing me up for his Substack newsletter again and again. 

So the two of us do not like each other and we don’t agree about very much but I’m fairly sure that uh whoever it was who was doing that particular kind of work was simply working both sides to try to increase antagonism for some uh purpose as yet unknown and you know knowing that that’s part of it doesn’t necessarily make it any easier but it is i think an important aspect of this, i think when one gets on a list of some kind one becomes a target of people who just wanna create trouble who just wanna make life difficult for people and who don’t really have a position of any kind uh on the topics at stake.

C: Right. for the lols i think is how the trolls call it right?

GL: Yeah! No, I mean Absolutely, I think I think that is what they call it. 

I was young in the nineties when it was impossible not to be obsessed with conspiracy theories and I have grown up obsessed with conspiracy theories not in the sense of being you know of someone who believes online conspiracy theories but someone who sort of generally thinks that power exists perpetuated its own interests…it would not surprise me if I if we found out at some point that there was some kind of you know troll farm working in the interests of creating political discord in order to make life difficult for you know feminists and transpeople online one the many ways actually i believe feminists and transpeople online belong to the same natural constituency.

C: I think that your intuition isn’t far off because I was part of a space that was an LGBT tech space at one point—

GL: Mmm hmmm

C: and unfortunately there were a number of actors there who had identified some feminists as their TERFs that they were going to target—

GL: Mmm hmm

C: and were actually coordinating harassment in that space and uh—

GL: Ugh, terrifying and again, you know I can speak from some—I won’t say personal experience because it hasn’t it hasn’t been firsthand experience but I have certainly I have heard from people whose judgment I trust even when I don’t agree with it that especially in the UK it is not uncommon for feminists who may take any number of positions on trans issues to be sort of stereotyped and you know made to feel uncomfortable by sort of male colleages? As as trans issues become a kind of cudgel for a kind of nebulous politically left of center mobilization that in fact exists to kind of empower um a constituency of already fairly powerful white men. 

That analysis isn’t the least inconsistent with uh I think observable notion that we’re in the middle of a intensifying and escalating moral panic directed against especially trans women and that that should be a source of great that should be a great source of great concern to everybody I think um but it but it it it certainly is also the case and abi abi here sort of acknowledge that it seems to be the case that um yeah woke bros love to love to yell at feminists, and I, 

You know I can tell you actually, this is a sort of—I hope I have to be a little careful for reasons relating to expectations of privacy among campus life but I can tell you that I have worked with students quite closely. Most of the students that I work with are primarily, uh coming out of feminist in in graduate studies um primarily writing dissertations in feminist studies usually with some trans dimension but that’s—

I have yet to actually supervise a dissertation solidly focused on that kind of question, and I can tell you that in environments that I have seen I have witnessed some of my own students be confronted and marginalized within their own activist and total communities that feminist commitment because feminism so often, especially when it’s being espoused from a kind of, you know sort of radical position which which has and is often articulated a critique of Marxism or woke by no means always, um often position um institutionally and universities to kind of politically reactionary force. 

Obviously, I mean I think it, anyone who knows anything about my work knows that I don’t believe it to be a reac-reactionary force in the least, you know feminism is is one of my first and most central political and intellectual commitments—

C: Yeah. So so you see yourself as a feminist.

GL: Um, abs-absolutely. Yeah.

C: That’s interesting. 

GL: Yeah I—

C: I don’t see myself as a feminist. And, 

GL: It’s—Okay—

C: And, part—

GL: And maybe maybe you can say a little more about that—

C: Yeah, absolutely. When I was starting to read a little bit more about radical feminism, which I was interested in as a trans person, uh I was interested to know why like trans people weren’t welcome at at Mich Fest for example—

GL: Mmm hmm.

C: I started to read these arguments that feminism is for women’s liberation and that women by definition of these feminists, are adult human females as, as uh what has become popularized now as the phrase, but people who are male, such as myself, are not able to engage in feminism without actually driving some of the conversation or making it self-directed, and therefore having males of of any type whether they’re trans or not, participate in feminism, would be something that would deflect the purpose of feminism, and I read that argument and I thought it made sense to uh at that point no longer call myself a feminist and to instead say that I listen to feminists and uh support a number of feminist positions but to not try to um put my hand on the wheel by calling myself a feminist.

GL: Well I mean, I, I, that’s not the first time I’ve heard that position and it makes a certain degree of sense to me. I think until very recently that would have been a a very small minority position within radical feminism. Uh it’s an example of the way in which a certain kind of radical feminism has become committed to a form of trans-exclusionary uh rhetoric as one of its defining characteristics. 

But I think, you know, the uh radical feminist tradition that one would recognize in Catharine MacKinnon, or an Andrea Dworkin, or an um you know, even Shula[s]mith Firestone, would would not by any means try to argue that all men, or all males, whatever they are, uh could be feminists, um, as I said, it’s it’s not an uncommon argument, it is it is one that I don’t credit you with having made up nor nor do I wish to contest it, merely to historicize it. 

I am committed to feminism as a political project of course, but as a scholar, um I am more committed (laughs) uh to the rigorous, intellectual historicization of feminism as a contested set of positions, and I think this is one of the ways in which we can really see how trans-exclusionary thought has come to dominate a a great number of other positions in ways that really are quite historically unprecedented.

C: What do you think is the motivation of what what you’re describing as trans-exclusionary forces or trans-exclusionary ideology? What do you think is the basis of that?

GL: What is the basis of it. You know, I I think questions of motivation often lead one to to questions of good and bad faith and just as a matter of political strategy I tend to assume good faith in all circumstances which is to say I am quite convinced and indeed certain that a number of people have recently decided that a woman is an adult human female and that that is the definitive account of that phrase and that anything that attempts to contest any elements of that phrase or even to challenge its apparent self-evidence is an affront to feminism.

Now again, as an historian I can tell you that that notion is incredibly recent and indeed radically at odds with the historical projectory of feminism which has by and large understood women as a cultural category produced by patriarchy, I not something rooted in the scientifically self-evident uh body of knowledge but something that is produced socially at the level of patriarchy. 

C: Hmm. 

GL: Um, That that’s for a long time been the central claim um but not that claim is one that is is challenged in in in a number of ways. Now, again, we’re not gonna agree on the political consequences of that challenge but uh we should be able to agree on the relative novelty of that position and uh I certainly I don’t wish to uh contest the sort of integrity of those who hold it. I know from from real personal experience that people simply believe this phrase to be self-evident. It’s as self-evident as two plus two equals four. 

And you know, that that’s not an accidental analogy. It’s an analogy drawn from 1984, which is of course the text to which uh people so frequently make reference when they’re referring to trans people, and you know freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two equals four. Freedom is the freedom to say that a woman is an adult human female. These kinds of axiomatic formulations which um really allow one to declare one’s identity and signal one’s virtue if one wants to put it in those terms in an online space that have very little in common again with uh intellectual and political activism of feminists over the last century and a half.

C: If if you had approached me ten years ago for a conversation like this I would have been defending my membership in the category of woman.

GL: MMMmm.

C: And I no longer do that. 

GL: Yeah, I I read your Quilette piece.

C: One of the things that changed my mind, is a radical feminist who I was engaging with, who uh but we were arguing about what the definition of bio-essentialist means in terms uh in relation to trans people, and ultimately the question she asked was, why is it that female has to be expanded to include trans women instead of male being included, expanded to include trans women, and that really stopped me, and as I was processing an answer to that I realized in terms of bio-essentialism, if I’m going to make the claim that I should to be in the category of of woman or female because I identify that way that’s a a very uh solipsistic assertion but that a much more defensible, observable description would be that I am a male who is really outside of the boundaries of masculinity. 

GL: MMMmm. I-It’s difficult for me to respond to a narrative that is so intimately concerned with your own experiences, so I mean a, I’m glad that you had these conversations and that they felt meaningful and and useful to you as as you were asking what your transness means to you, um, yeah. 

I I haven’t yet had a conversation like that. I would probably, you know, if I if I imagine myself in a conversation like that where when someone is asking me to justify my inclusion in in a in a cultural category I would certainly decline to do so. 

Again, you know my position is that of a cultural historian, not to sort of give the kind of boring answer to every question, right, but my um, my position will always be descriptive. You know, how does, how do these words get used, um, in in real space in real time, how do people actually use the word woman? How do people actually use the word trans? Those are the only question that really interests me. 

C: Mmm hmm.

GL: Um, If one really foregrounds that question, which is the question of pragmatism, actually in the philosophical sense, if one foregrounds the pragmatic question, then I think one is avoiding all kinds of essentialism: biological essentialism, but also cultural essentialism. My sense of my own sort of um political commitments usually presents itself as a resistance to resistance to to ESSENCE as a as a as a notion. Um, while recognizing of course that that’s a philosophically challenging position to occupy. 

C:  So do you consider yourself a woman?

GL: Uh let me tell you this, I always, earlier today doing the dishes. I was doing the dishes. So.

C: Oh, Okay then, then clearly you’re a woman. 

GL: No (laughs) that was not my point. 

C: (laughs.)

GL: Uh I was doing the dishes this afternoon and I was thinking to myself, what kind of questions am I going to get asked and then that literally word for word, Do you consider yourself a woman, was the one that landed in my head as a question that you all might wanna ask me, and you know I tried to think what is the best way to answer that that doesn’t sound evasive or doesn’t. I don’t— I can tell you that I don’t find that question especially interesting to me, as a question about my own individual experience, 

But I can also see how asking me about my own experience is a way of engaging structural questions and more importantly actually engaging the real the really philosophically interesting question of how we relate our own cognitive sense of ourselves and commitments to the wider world. So I don’t want to say it’s simply a question I’m gonna refuse to answer so I thought that the best maybe I could do would be to ask you uh to tell me in as precise a way as possible what the phrase means to you and then I’ll tell you if I think it applies to me, because you know, if you think that a woman is an adult human female and female is designed by the inclusion or presumptive inclusion, I know if get to presumptive, things are wrong, the inclusion of large and motile gametes then clearly I’m not. 

If you were to take for some reason the bizarre assumption that whoever did the washing up, and I said it’s bizarre,

C: (laughs)

GL: but if you have to take this position…is a woman then clearly I am but clearly maybe you simply think that gametes will be the chromosomes are the answer in which case you answered your own question, but if there is a way to answer the question, to ask the question, which will allow multiple answers, uh, I would be certainly interested in having that kind of conversation. 

C: Well, uh, as I said, ten years ago, if I’d asked, I would have said certainly I’m I’m in that category, because for people who don’t know that I’m trans, 

GL: Yeah,

C: they treat me as though I’m a member of that category—

GL: Sure.

C: …and even some people who know that I’m trans, I think still sometimes, um, treat me more similarly to members of the class woman than the class man.

GL: Mm hm, but, but presumably you don’t think that that is dispositive, I would be surprised—

C: It’s not dispositive. So I’d say, uh, contextually if I’m unloading my bicycle in a park, (laughs) Nina…

N: (laughs)

C: and somebody is bicycling by—

GL: Is this something that happened?

C: Yeah (laughs).

N: I, I mis, I missexed Corinna once.

GL: (uncomfortably hearty laugh)

C: Right. So in that context, for that person’s perception, for Nina’s perception, I was a woman in that case. So—

N: Not just a woman, a mother of—

C: a mother.

N: …and the spouse of a particular person because Corinna parked right next to a dude with two kids who was, who were, he was unloading their bicycles and Corinna, you know, unloaded Corinna’s bicycle right there (laughs) and I was like, I’m like, I see a family.

GL: Mmm. Yeah. Interesting. Yeah. 

C: So, I, I think contextually, there are cases where people treat me as though I’m a member of the of the class woman.

GL: Mm hmm.

C: Other times people see me as a trans person.

GL: Mm hmm.

C: And instead of treating me like a woman—

GL: Mm hmm. 

C: they treat me as a male who is gender non-comforming or, or is trying to pass as a woman, 

GL: Mm hmm.

C: and that’s not the same as bring a woman. 

N: Can I, Can I, Can I ask, Corinna,

C: Yeah.

N: What does it mean to be treated in the class of woman. ‘Cause this is something actually that Jesse Singal talks about. He’s like, oh, well, trans women don’t think that they’re actually women. They just want to be treated like women. And that is like, well what does that mean? What does it mean to be treated like a woman. 

C: Well, just to give an example of something I know my female colleagues have had to do, which is that, if you’re in a meeting and you’re trying to get an idea advanced, the best way of getting that idea to be heard is to have a male confederate advance it for you. I have had the same sorts of problems getting heard and acknowledged as a peer as many women in my field have. And very few men who I’ve talked to have had this issue and it’s it’s even been the case that I can ask a junior person to advance the idea for me and still get it accepted more easily. So when I say treated as a woman, or treated as as a member of the class woman I think that there’s a lot of, this sort of assumption about what women can and can’t do and that sometimes, just like somebody bicycling past me, I think that that same sort of shortcut grouping of which class I’m in sort of puts me into that category.

N: So being treated like a woman means that you don’t get listened to at work?

C: Well that’s that would be one example I can think of. 

N: Can you give any others?

C: Again, contextually, how I’m treated when I’m interacting with uh, in public, with strangers, or uh, if I’m interacting with people who don’t know that I’m trans.

N: But what, I mean,

C: Okay, uh, (laughs). Unfortunately I live in a neighborhood where I can’t even walk to the store without getting street harassment, so that would be another case where I’m experiencing uh some of the same sorts of frustrations or or interactions unwanted interactions that women tend to receive.

N: Okay—

GL: One of the things I’m hearing in the inquiry is whether or not that form of address that you’re noticing Corinna, um, ever is ever accompanied by anything that isn’t um, associated with patriarchal oppression of women. That is to say, does being treated like a woman ever signify anything other than uh being put in one’s place, being sexually objectified, being silenced, being marginalized, um, being kept down in some way. I don’t mean to put words in your mouth Nina but that was part of what I thought was behind the question.

N: No I’m just genuinely curious.

GL: Oh, okay.

N: Uh, like what it means to be treated as a woman, I’m, and I also wanted to ask what you meant when you said that that woman is a social category produced by patriarchy, something like that, and I, I wanted you to—

GL: Yeah.

N: —explain that for the for the non-academic layperson.

GL: (Laughs) Sure. Um, Yeah—I’ll, I’ll I’ll try. But you know who does a really good job of it actually is Kathleen Stock where she I think quite rightly glosses radical feminism as a position that the class of woman is not produced prior to patriarchy but being produced by patriarchy much like no one is born a member of the proleteriat nonetheless clearly exists as a result of the production of capital and indeed any other kind of social category, uh, we won’t we don’t usually go around tracing social categories to bodily features, and the argument of feminism has always been that the somatic differences between men and women are, one, incredibly variable and therefore uh not good grounds for the kind of discrimination between men and women as different social classes, and two, that those differences are opportunistically deployed by patriarchy, uh, which has occupied a position prior to the determination and discrimination of different sex classes.

N: Okay, you’re going to have to break that down. Sorry.

GL: (laughs) Oh my gosh I’m sorry! I’m trying! Okay so, but, did the analogy with the with the proleteriat make sense at least?

N: I think I think it helps to break that down. Yeah.

C: I’m actually confused on one account which is that—

GL: Yeah.

C: if male and female were purely uh, social constructs, I’m sorry, if man and woman were purely social constructs then you’d expect for there to be about an even distribution of small gamete people and large gamete people in each class but it it seems like there’s—

GL: Gamete?

C: Well you’d expect as as many male—man, and female man as as there would be in the other category if that makes any sense.

GL: I I don’t necessarily think so, no. I I mean to to me that feels like a question for theoretical statistics but I 

C: (laughs) 

GL: can’t see why anyone would assume that. (laughs.)

C: Well, well what, what I’m saying is that women aren’t just, or females aren’t just it’s it’s not some statistical aberration that all females end up being in the woman class. Like there’s a material component there. 

GL: Well I would contest contest that that’s true. I mean I think you know it’s not true.

C: Well it’s—the exception’s almost proved the rule. There are people who have—

GL: That’s not a good line in academia (laughs) Uh I’m happy to sort of have um…(unintelligible)

C: There are XY uh women, there are women who have XY uh genetics and um I think that there are some cases of XX individuals who have masculinization uh from from having uh…

GL: Well, the the sort of the chromosome thing is actually a really helpful um a a really helpful point of um, engagement. So, you know as as you know, um because you have uh been talking about small gametes rather than about XY chromosomes, uh the the apparent self-evidence of the chromosome is a market to the phenomenon that we call biological sex…

C: Mm hmm.

GL: that tends to be rather downplayed from what I have been able to gather from speaking to colleagues who work on that. Uh, I’m not a scientist uh, and I’m very you know happy to cede the grounds of uh scientific dispute to those who are but it seems quite clear to me that gametes have replaced chromosomes within uh at least the kind of discursive terrain in which this is being fought, and if that’s true I think it’s a really helpful point to reflect that the definitives that we use to describe different sex classes change over time, and if that’s true then it means we have a conception that exists prior to the elaboration of a particular descriptor or definitor. Again, that doesn’t distinguish uh this particular class from any other way of arranging social classes or thinking about social classes um, in fact it’s something that it has in common with literally every other social class. 

If you wanted to, you know determine who was a fireman to use an example that got me in a lot of trouble recently, you wouldn’t try to look at the cellular structure of their cranium, even though you might be able to determine patterns between people who became 

C: Mmm.

GL: fire firefighters. 

C: But but but you would you would acknowledge at least that there is some material basis on which social class people get sorted into.

GL: No I don’t acknowledge that. And I don’t think you mean basis actually. Do don’t you mean um, do you really mean basis? Do you think there’s a material basis for this for the sorting of social classes?

C: Well, so forgive me. Just like you’re not a scientist, I’m not an academic. So let me say it more plainly. Females become women. Males become men. 

GL: Okay so so—

C: On on the basis of of something that people can observe about their material embodiment.

GL: I’m afraid I think that what you just said got you chucked out of the gender critical feminism club because uh if you highlight the role—

C: It’s okay.

GL: —of people observing their own uh embodiment, then I’m afraid that you have self ID as the grounds of sexuation uh which is further than most people want to go but no, um, no, I I I I don’t think that’s true at all. I I I can see why it seems so obvious to claim that the class of people who are assigned female at birth go on to be identi—self-identified as women in old— in adulthood but without a really structural feminist analysis of the grounds of possibility for maturation—

C: Mm hmm.

GL: —and more importantly, the barriers to transition, and the kind of enormous effort, this is the subject of my next scholarly book, in fact the enormous effort that has been imposed in order to either prevent people from transitioning or to claim that transition is uh an impossibility. To me those seem like fairly obvious facts as the one would have to explain away. I think what is remarkable is how many people do transition! (laughs) Yeah I don’t I don’t think one can take for granted that everyone assigned a certain sex class at birth will go on to attain within that sex class their entire life. 

N: Sssssoooo as a as a pragmatist, you’re a pragmatist, right?

GL: I am! Yeah! That’s something I do believe in, yeah.

N: Yeah no, that’s what I, that’s what I gather. I listened to one of your talks and then I read an article about pragmatism—

GL: Oh!

N: —and I’m like oh okay. So really it’s based on what works as you say, right—

GL: Yeah.

N: So if somebody is regarded as Corinna says, regarded as female, what ever that means—

GL: Yeah.

N: Uh, then that person—

GL: And I make no judgement what it means. Yeah It may mean—

N: —then that person is functionally female, right, they’re regarded as female and then they’re functionally female. 

GL: Mm hmm.

N: Right, so back to whether you consider yourself a woman,

GL: Mmhmm.

N: Do you—are you regarded as a woman?

GL: Uh… (sighs) Yeah, again, that’s sort of very difficult to answer at the scale of an individual isn’t it it’s one of the reasons why, um, I guess we don’t tend to do scholarship at the level of the individual. I think it’s very clear I’m not being right now (laughs).

N: Why? Why?

GL: Uh well, because a while ago, Nina, you used the word “missexed,” which was not a word I’d heard before but indicated to me that you tend to refer to Corinna by your assessment of uh Corinna’s biological sex rather than um lived gender, and so to me that indicates a kind of generalizable position about referentiality. Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe I’m drawing too many conclusions but the what what I think you are right to point out, the part I just agree with you wholeheartedly about is that these things are extremely complicated—

Dogs: Cackle.

GL: —whatever it might mean. My dogs are being hilarious and also a little bit mischievous right now (laughs). Whatever it might mean to be uh regarded as a woman in an individual moment it can’t mean any sort of one straightforward thing. It would be the same in every case, in fact the benefit of a pragmatic approach to these kinds of questions I think, would be that it circumvents, it circumvents the entire question of meaning by putting an emphasis instead on convention and and it makes everything hypothetical. If indeed I am being treated as a woman, then uh, I am a woman. If I am not being treated as a woman then I am not a woman. It is that simple. 

N: Is that true for me too? 

GL: I would say so!

N: If I’m being treated—so I’m a woman when I’m treated as a woman and I’m not a woman when I’m not treated as a woman?

GL: And by treated let’s um try to distinguish this from the highly affectively charged scenes of parking a bicycle, uh being catcalled or being passed over at work and think instead about how we are positioned rather than treated by patriarchy in a variety of different positions in our life. So for example, when we are invited to use a different bathroom, when we are invited to tick a box on a medical intake form. Those kinds of questions, in which our own in which our own will and our own practice certainly form a component part. But again, you know the question that most interests me is the purely hypothetical pragmatic one. If I am being treated as a woman then I am a woman. And whether that treatment is happening at the scale of a lover, or a gang of people on the street, or you know, something as large as the nation-state, the fundamental method for making sense is the same. 

N: So then if you’re, if you’re not being treated as a woman, then you’re not a woman?

GL: Yeah. Right? I mean what, what what’s the alternative?

N: Uhhh….

GL: Can maybe maybe you can give me an example of someone who is not treated as a woman but you would wanna say is one. Because again I am making the claim that this is how language works, right. I—as a pragmatist, it doesn’t even bother me especially whether or not this is a good way of language working. That’s, you know, that’s a question for a theologian—

N: Do you, yeah, so I guess this is a theological question, do you think that there’s a reality, that language is just like our best attempt to describe reality and that there’s a reality that exists outside of language? That we’re using language to describe, or do you think language is the whole thing. 

GL: Uh I definitely don’t think that language is the whole thing. Otherwise I wouldn’t be drinking Red Bull. 

N: Wait, why?

GL: Because it’s got caffeine in it and the caffeine gets me—keeps my energy up…during…uh…

N: But what does that have to do with language? That could be a linguistic construct.

GL: I’m really not sure that it could be. How could it be?

N: You could be performing it. I mean it could just be it could be a performance. It could be…

GL: Well I wouldn’t be drinking a Red Bull then. 

N: Well but—

GL: I mean I might act like I’m on the Red Bull, but I wouldn’t pay the money for the Red Bull or drink it. 

N: But you’re drinking something that’s called Red Bull. I mean as far as you know, maybe it’s something else. 

GL: This seems like uh, sort of esoteric position to me a little bit. Um, yes I believe in the reality that is independent from language, yeah. 

N: Okay.

GL: (laughs)

N: So is, so then (laughs) Um, when you—your previous question about about if somebody is treated as a woman then they are a woman, so is there is there something—

GL: (unintelligible) 

N: —beyond is there something beyond how they’re treated. Like, could somebody be treated like a woman on a desert island where there’s nobody—if a woman stands in the forest with no one to treat her as a woman is she still a woman.

GL: Well uh luckily you don’t have to take my word for this, because uh that’s sort of one of the fundamental questions of radical feminism as I understand it and the answer would be no, a woman cannot be a woman on a desert island, whatever the size of her gametes. Whatever the shape of her chromosomes, absolutely not. Woman is a social class that is produced contextually as left thoughts in general since Marxist critique of the Robinsonard has had its think. That does not really help us. That fact does not help us. The fact that there are no uh capitalists or proleteriats on an island does not help us understand the origins of capital nor does the fact that there are no women or men on desert islands help us understand the origins of patriarchy um,

N: Wait wait, what if there’s, I am sorry to ask this but let’s say there’s a man and a woman on a desert island—

GL: Mmm. (unintelligible ) relation… yeah…

N: And let’s say they mate and reproduce. 

GL: Yeah. 

N: But there’s just them. Are you saying that that the social category is sufficient for them to reproduce because you have two of them and and that’s all you need for a social category and that their class distinction that their class their recognition of their class in each other is what makes them reproduce? 

GL: So I l Iove this line of reasoning actually, I have an answer for you but I just I just wanna sort of give this little meta analysis about what we’re doing. What we’re doing right now is we’re having a conversation about um a kind of political allegory uh whereby we can understand—the claim of which is that we can understand the meaning of categories that we use in the real world by extracting them from context, imagining a world in which context doesn’t exist, and then in treating them as isolated, um, hard to say the word and give the ending away, essences, and to me, that kind of reasoning, which is fun, right, and actually teaches us something about how we think and want things from politics and political rationality, um tells us nothing about the world that we live in. 

So, but to answer your question in direct terms, because I do think uh it warrants it, yes if you have two people and they reproduce, uh, then the act of reproduction would constitute an act of social reproduction. Again, this is the basic social reproduction feminism. Um, and what you would have there is a sex gender system. 

N: I guess what I have to say, and actually maybe, maybe I should wait to say this because I think um, Corinna has more questions about what women are.

GL: (laughs)

C: I just had a comment about this idea that woman only being a social class, to me seems seems a little bit like a peanut butter sandwich, but you know, the jelly in that sandwich ought to be the material aspect because the there’s a lot more to being a woman than how people treat you. 

GL: So again, I just want to be super clear, that when we’re using this language, 

…. (to be continued)

7 thoughts on “Episode 26: Trano-a-Trano with Grace Lavery

  1. My attempt to trim the fat from Lavery’s jawing cc’d from spinster:

    Pt 1.
    This is a fascinating conversation. Corinna is bringing up the main GC talking points about feminism and the definition of woman, GL is pretending it’s all new to him, and goes full postmodern retard, ie nothing means anything— “resists essence as a notion” and doesn’t find the question “do you consider yourself a woman” “interesting” (about 1/4 in.) He admits he doesn’t have female gametes, but being ‘the one that does the washing up’ would be interesting for him to discuss.

    In regard to context, Corinna discusses how she’s perceived “as a woman” and Nina asks “what does that mean” (eg assumed ineptitude at work, experiencing street harassment.). GL quotes Kathleen Stock that patriarchy produced the class of woman. Corinna asks ‘Why do females end up in the woman class, apart from masculinized women (DSD?)’ GL says he’s not a scientist but just the fact that gametes have replaced chromosomes in the discussion about sex class has changed over time [means the definition of woman is shifting.] GL doesn’t believe there’s a material basis for sex class determining class because so many people transition.

    Nina asks “are you regarded as a woman?” And GL evades, because it’s down to individual perception, and he’s perplexed about the perception of sex— that if one is treated a woman, whether by a lover, a stranger, or the state, they are a woman.

    “Is there a reality that exists outside of language or is language the whole thing?”
    He says yes, there is. “If a woman stands in a forest and there’s no one to treat her as a woman, is she a woman?” He says no. Nina asks what if there’s a woman AND a man and they reproduce, is that enough to assign them their classes based on biology? He says social reproduction would create a sex-gender system in that context. Corinna says there’s more to being a woman than how people treat you.

    GL defines patriarchy as the system that channels capital toward the class designated as male. GL admits he’s “the most overrewared transsexual in America.” He defines “resexing” as ’medical accomplishments to somatic changes’. Corinna says ‘That word [transsexual] is bad, according to the internet,’ GL dismisses this as only on the internet, explaining ‘patriarchy suppresses medical transition, that’s what TRA is for, that it’s not a medical category [transsexual] but changing one’s body.’

    He’s deliberately obtuse and tangential, but great work trying to keep him focused.

    Pt 2
    GL riffs more on patriarchy, that it dictates everything, and the only way to dismantle is for people to have absolute control, medically, of our bodies granted to them by the state and that only trans people are fighting for that, for their various personal reasons. He doesn’t think it’s true that patriarchy and anti-patriarchy, although it could be argued as such, is defined through binary sex as a zero sum game.

    When questioned regarding the discussion of developing a gender identity, if there is such a thing, different from natal sex, among trans people by Corrina, GL says he himself doesn’t and doesn’t believe most trans people believe in a gender identity, either. (?!) He doesn’t want to identity as anything, but believes he’s feminine because he was socialized only by female family members until he was 11, was feminine in boys school, then had a compulsion to cross dress in college, believing himself a woman. He quit drugs and alcohol for sobriety, estrogen and woke education and his pseudo spiritual goal is solving the world’s problems by eliminating sex in law. ‘Asking what a woman is,’ he says, ‘isn’t important because having the law define what your position in the social class produced to oppress you is bad.’

    In response to Nina’s argument about sex-based protections and sex-specific vulnerabilities taken for granted by women who grow up privileged, GL says “What should society use for the definition of woman?” He says there is no standard definition of woman according to cultural history that only law needs a single definition.

    GL validates her observations about sex differences as “massive,” says patriarchy “distributes this risk and suffering” to a single class of people and “isn’t organized to the interests” of women in menstrual pain, but with caveat that none of the mentioned sex differences are “definitive” since the entire sex class doesn’t experience all of them. “Instead of agitating for women,” he would agitate for “people who are vulnerable to menstruation” or “people who are vulnerable during intercourse.”

    He says womb transplants will have to change the meaning of what a woman is from just gametes or chromosomes. Corinna asks what about defining woman by who has natural or artificial modifications? Then GL delivers a wacky defense about that argument being used to make lesbians and butch lesbians less legitimate and delivering a speech about ‘feminism’s primary weapon for 100 years in America is resisting the notion that all women’s bodies grow in the same way and “a resistance to the distinction between natural and synthetic modes of organic growth’ and then mansplains that radical feminists are “obviously” wrong that femininity is artifice.

    Nina illustrates that she observes her and other women’s learned performance of femininity cues, and the failure to perform that is seen as butch. GL says even making statements about rejecting gender can be coded as a gendered behavior, meaning something different to a woke or a GC audience, but he repeats he doesn’t believe in gender and that “it’s a mistake to ontologize gender” OR sex.

    Nina points out his contradiction to his earlier statements about changing sex even if you do just a little self-medicalizing. He sort of agrees, as if he’s aware of his bullshit.

    He says estrogen breasts on a man are female breasts because “they’re breasts and that’s how we understand breasts?” [audible question mark]

    Corinna: ‘What about gynecomastia in men who have prostate cancer?’
    GL says “It’s complicated” and Buck Angel for example is a man because he passes.
    Nina: “That’s just how he looks…”
    GL says material reality is complicated because of the changing definitions of what male/female means, that if Buck is female “I don’t know on what grounds.”

    Good calm conversation! Funny though how he couldn’t keep from mansplaining feminism, women’s experience of sexual intercourse and having sex organs, trying to say there’s no universal definition of woman that all female humans have in common, and put women’s liberation and safety in the hands of modern medicine and TRA’s. Poor Berkeley students are paying to take courses about how they don’t exist except in how their breasts and willingness to wash dishes are coded. Not sexist at all!

  2. Skulhoney, thank you for this excellent summary. I appreciate the time that went into listening and responding.

  3. This is my new favorite pod! This ep and Karen Davis so far are top notch. Listened to this one while reading Helen Joyce’s book and it really drove home how bizarro world these concepts are, and how widely accepted in the US. Even though I got a liberal education myself and even wrote a paper on Derrida, my gender studies class at least had nothing to do with deconstructing language. Can’t wait to binge on more 🙂

  4. Hi Nina and Corinna! I honestly hope you are able to do some more interviews like this as I find when there is dialogue there is so much more opportunity for actual change – and at the least, understanding! I was surprised by a lot of the topics. Nina, I was very happy to hear you try and pin down some of Grace’s opinions in more clear (non-academic) language, even if it didn’t seem to be fruitful. One of the biggest barriers to having these conversations is speaking plainly, which includes breaking down academic language but also staying away from dogma, rhetoric and slogans, too. I would have really appreciated a conversation between Nina & Corinna to unpack the discussion and hope that is coming. Thanks to all three of you for being willing to talk to one another!

  5. Oy — I’ve only been able to listen to 2/3 of this podcast so far. Actually when Grace starts talking about Sedona and how estrogen made her feel more embodied, she actually starts sounding like a real person. Up until then, the only way I could keep my sanity was to think of these two quotes about males and knowledge.

    1. Re male approach to knowledge:
    “Men’s incapacity to link themselves directly to the spirit was what drove them to talk about the process of reaching knowledge. They haven’t stopped talking about it. And it is precisely this insistence on knowing how they strive toward the spirit, this insistence on analyzing the process, that gave them the certainty that being rational is a typically male skill.”

    p. 248 in Be-ing-Dreaming: An initiation into the Sorcerers’ World (1991)
    by Florinda Donner (the pen name of one of Carlos Casteneda’s students)

    2. Re male constructs of female issues:
    “When men attempt to manage Earth matters, like land and identity, they confuse themselves by applying Sky principles of height and distance. The outcome is as predictable as it is disastrous: Flighty rules result from their eagle’s-eye view, obviating ground matters, which look too small to make out from the vantage point of Sky. Unable to feel the rumblings of ne gashedenza (the sacred will of the people), which traditionally originates at the roots of the grass, they grab for the wind and blow hot air.” p. 97

    From “Slow Runners” by Barbara Alice Mann, pp. 96-97
    One of four essays in Make a Beautiful Way: The Wisdom of Native American Women
    Edited by Barbara Alice Mann (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2008)
    Barbara Alice Mann is professor of humanities at University of Toledo.
    Bear clan, Seneca.

    What’s really crazy (perhaps a joke on me) is that Prof. Mann rejects Carlos Castaneda’s work as both fake and appropriation of Native American culture. But both of these quotes resonated strongly with me when I read them (independently, separated by many years) as explaining many of my interactions with males over the course of my now-70 year long life.

    I’ll try to listen to the rest of the podcast. Bless all three of you for trying to have a conversation.

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