The Solvable Body: Dreaming of a Trans Utopia

dreaming of a trans utopia

by Brienne D. Hayes

Brienne D. Hayes is a non-binary writer and queer theorist from San Diego, California. They are currently studying for their PhD in English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Their work can be found at briennehayes.com.

In a world without gender, what would it mean to be trans?

This question may seem absurd, or worse, contradictory to the aspirations of women’s and trans liberation. To understand its importance, let us first invent a world without gender.

Imagine a social utopia that no longer sees people in terms of a gender binary. This is a world that does not print a person’s gender on birth certificates or ask for it on job applications; it is, as posited by neuroscientist Daphna Joel, a world

in which humans are treated according to who they are, and not according to the form of their genitals; in which even the thought of grouping them by their genitals sounds as bizarre as grouping people according to the color of their eyes.”

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/its-time-for-a-world-without-gender/

It seems reasonable to suggest that any world that fails to meet this ideal could not rightly be called a utopia.

Now, imagine that our utopia is also a technological utopia in which medical science is so sophisticated that any imaginable rearrangement of the human body is possible. Any disease can be cured; any physical attribute can be modified; any element of the body can be altered at the genetic level. The moment a hypothetical transgender person in this world begins to feel discomfort from their primary or secondary sex characteristics, they can have them changed via a simple, accessible procedure; if they regret the changes, they can have them reverted that same day.

Under these ideal conditions, the process of transition has been removed from the transgender experience. Social transition is obviated by the lack of significant gender categories; medical transition is no more substantial than a trip to the dentist. A person realizes that they’re trans and, within a day, they’ve “completed” their transition. In our utopia, then, is there any need for “transgender” to exist as a category of identity at all?

If our invented world seems utopian, imagine now that we replace the idea of gender with the idea of race or disability. In these alternate “utopias,” we eliminate racism by allowing everyone to become white, or we eliminate discrimination against the Deaf by allowing everyone to become hearing. In the world of our thought experiment, we have not accomplished trans liberation; we have only succeeded in making everyone cis. These solutions do not eliminate the underlaying structures of oppression; they simply “innovate” the oppressed groups out of existence.

I have been unable to shake this thought experiment since coming out as transgender and, shortly thereafter, reading Samuel R. Delany’s 1976 novel Trouble on Triton, one of only a few pre-21st century science fiction novels to explore trans identity (I think that it is important to note that Delany is a cis man, but is also a black, gay, disabled man who has always centered ideas of identity and difference in his work).

The world of our thought experiment is inspired by the world of Triton, in which Bron Hellstrom, a transwoman, undergoes a near-instantaneous gender confirmation surgery, complete with whole-body feminization surgery and the replacement of XY chromosomes with XX chromosomes, in the penultimate chapter. Bron’s social transition goes as smoothly as her physical transition, as the culture of Triton does not discriminate on the basis of gender. But transition does not free Bron from the ennui and misery that permeate her pre-transition life, as the misogyny that Bron learned in her childhood on planets beyond Triton has so permeated her identity that she became, in the words of her friend, “a woman made for a man.”

It’s tempting to think that we can resolve Bron’s dilemma by eliminating the extraplanetary misogyny, alien to Triton, that is the basis of Bron’s struggles post-transition. In doing so, though, we exclude from our hypothetical utopia any person who has ever experienced misogyny. Generalizing this beyond gender, we see that this utopia could not include any person who has ever been the subject of any structural violence of any kind—our utopia is, in effect, a world without difference.

I am sure that, to some, any utopia would by necessity be a homogenous world without identity or difference. How do we reach that world from our own, though, without erasing all who are different, through assimilation or through elimination?

Samuel Delany Triton
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14992912

I believe that such a feat is, by its nature, impossible. We live in a world built on difference; our utopias, I think, must be built on difference as well. When I ask, “in a world without gender, what would it mean to be trans?” I am really asking, “in a world that does not mistreat those who are different, what does it mean to be different?”

Here, we risk equating identity and suffering. There is a tendency within the transgender community to amplify trans suffering while rendering trans joy invisible, as we are suffering, and we hope that those in power might see our suffering and be moved to address it. While suffering is important to any marginalized identity, to equate being trans with suffering is to cast trans-ness as a problem that needs to be solved—and when we imagine utopias without gender, it is all too easy to “solve” the suffering of transgender people by imagining that we no longer exist.

The subtitle of Delany’s Trouble on Triton is An Ambiguous Heterotopia, where, I believe, heterotopia refers both to a world that is different from ours and to a world in which difference is essential. Delany does not posit Triton as a utopia, and we are left to wonder: can any heterotopia also be a utopia, or do all utopias, by their nature, exclude the possibility of difference?

If we define utopia as a world without suffering, then perhaps the only way to achieve a utopia would be through the elimination of difference. Instead, let us reconceptualize the utopia as the heterotopia, as a world in which the agonies and splendors of difference are allowed to flourish. Let us assert the right to difference, to individuality, to belonging and un-belonging alike. Let us imagine futures in which we seek not to erase difference, but to center it, so that we might benefit from its infinite potentialities.

In a world without gender, being trans means inhabiting, transforming, and exploding gender, not erasing it. It means finding the space for gender in all of its manifestations, not insisting on a single standard of androgyny. It means insisting that we will not be erased.

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