“Psychology suggests that only after healing yourself can you begin to heal the world. We disagree. People do not have to be perfectly functioning, self-actualized human beings in order to create social change. Think of the lesbians and feminists you know who have been influential in the world, and who have worked hard and effectively for social justice: have they all loved and accepted themselves?”
– Celia Kitzinger and Rachel Perkins, Changing Our Minds: Lesbian Feminism and Psychology
I am so tired of people assuming that I believe “better” therapists (or therapeutic guidelines) are the solution to the existence of women who stop transition. It’s a reflexive defanging of my actual position, which has often already been clearly stated: I am deeply hostile to the concept of paying a professional to act as an authority figure regarding my inner life. Avoiding therapists has done me an awful lot more good than going near them ever did. I read Changing Our Minds recently, a book by two lesbians trained as psychologists, which argues that the whole concept of psychology contradicts many aspects of lesbian feminist politics. It was incredibly insightful and I really, really recommend it to any women curious about the details of the positions I’m talking about in this post.
From a section titled Therapy Is Wrong:
Therapy is taking over our everyday lives as lesbians. Although we have criticized many individual therapists and therapists in this chapter, our main objective has been to point out that the very idea of therapy is wrong. We do not think the situation is improved by ‘ethical guidelines’ for therapists, however efficiently these are enforced, because we think therapy in and of itself is a fundamentally unethical enterprise… if something is bad, it doesn’t become ‘good’ just because more people have access to it. The fundamental problem is not the abuses some therapists perpetrate, nor the racist, classist, and able-minded conditions of access to therapy (although all those things are problems too). The fundamental problem is the nature of therapy itself.
We would like lesbians to know the difference between therapy and feminism (even if they sometimes still choose therapy). We would like lesbians to believe that most of us, most of the time, are strong and capable human beings who do not need to be ‘cured’…and that on those occasions when we are not strong and capable, we are- or should be, could be- able to take care of each other. To the extent that we are not, that is an indictment of our movement.”
I agree with this. I know others who say they’ve benefited from therapy, and I’m not arguing that they didn’t. At its best, therapy resembles friendship, and some friendships are incredibly helpful, but being licensed as a counselor of some kind in no way guarantees that someone is capable of helping another person. I suspect that the people who’ve gotten a lot out of therapy would have gotten even more from an actual friendship with that same therapist, on equal footing. Providing support to each other should be a primary function of community. Outsourcing our needs might feel very necessary, and on an individual scale, I wouldn’t fault any woman for feeling the need to do so. On a broader scale, though, relying on paid professionals to help us takes away part of what drives us to work together, and can easily cause us to personalize what we face- to the exclusion of politicizing it.
Another one of the ideas in this book that really got me was that, in many ways, how we feel isn’t always necessarily that important, and eternally turning inward to try and resolve the problems you see as personal can be considered an action that runs contrary to feminist beliefs.
“When I first heard . . . that Gloria Steinem didn’t have self-esteem, my reaction was: “Who cares? Look what she’s done with her life! It’s the life that matters in the end.”
– C. Sternhell, as quoted in Changing Our Minds
I was floored when I read this. It had never occurred to me to question the inherent importance of constantly examining every detail of our inner lives. I felt like the more issues I had, the less politically effective I could be. In some ways, yeah, problems like being unwilling to go outdoors in daylight have had material consequences, in terms of what I can do for other women. Even then, though, I didn’t start going outside more often because of psychologists. Initially, I started going outside more because I got a dog to help me with certain stuff and was training her for public access. I got more resilient about how other people saw me because my beliefs changed around the meaning of my appearance and how others interpreted it. That resistance to leaving the house was not a “personal problem”, either- it was a direct consequence of being told by the trans scene I was in that being seen one way or another was supposed to feel validating, and my gradual realization that (at the time) there was no way others could view me that didn’t make me feel sick. I found relief through practical changes in my circumstances and through shifting my ideological framework. Basically… the idea that public accomplishments could matter more than one’s internal world, past or present, was really freeing to me.
Shortly after I read this book, I learned about a woman whose life really exemplifies that concept: Pauli Murray, a black lesbian who overcame huge institutional barriers to help found NOW, contribute to the Brown v. Board of Education victory, write papers used to uphold the ERA, organize influential early protests against segregation, and much, much more.
The same New Yorker article that writes glowingly of Murray’s many successes also devotes a few hundred words to a more private struggle of hers. Murray’s complicated feelings about being female as a black lesbian in the 1900s are distilled to “Murray, the passionate advocate for women’s rights, identified as a man.” This position seems to be based on the interpretation of Murray’s documents found in Rosalie Rosenberg’s book, Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray. It’s noted that Murray sought transition well before the 1960s but did not find medical services available. What, then, of the rest of Murray’s life? She died in 1985. FTM transition was not so inaccessible by then, at least not for a tenured professor. The simpler explanation is that Murray found a way to live without transition, as necessary as it may have felt at some points. Murray, for her part, wrote her own autobiography that made no mention of these issues.
Rosenberg’s interpretation as represented in this article, that a woman who seeks transition at one point must not be a woman after all, speaks of a fundamental misunderstanding of the social forces impacting women, and possibly of a lack of intellectual honesty concerning the life and works of other women. These same qualities are evidenced in an earlier project of Rosenberg’s (as described in Susan Faludi’s Backlash): testifying against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of the Sears corporation. She stated that their female employees are consistently passed over for high-paying commission sales positions because this was the “natural effect” of women’s “differences”, and that to mistake this sex-based discrepancy in hiring for sexism was “naive”. Rosenberg was friendly with the Sears chief defense lawyer, who had once employed her ex-husband. In preparing her testimony, she chose not to speak with any women employed at Sears.
“In forming her opinions on this case, Rosenberg didn’t conduct any independent research. She didn’t talk to any actual saleswomen or interview any female employees at Sears: ‘I just pretty much relied on what [the Sears legal team] gave me.’ To help the Sears lawyers, she culled evidence from other scholars’ books, evidence that she said showed that women traditionally prefer ‘different’, more female types of jobs. She handed over this material to the Sears lawyers. They wrote her court statement for her, she says– then handed her the completed brief to sign.
…When the EEOC lawyer received a copy of the written testimony, they passed it on to Kessler-Harris for her comments. ‘This is not an argument that any reasonable historian would make,’ Kessler-Harris recalls thinking at the time… When Rosenburg did proceed to court, Kessler-Harris agreed to testify for the EEOC to correct the record on her own writings.
In court, Kessler-Harris pointed out where Rosenberg had twisted the meaning of her work, mostly through the creative use of ellipses. For example, Rosenberg had quoted Kessler-Harris as saying that women quit industrial jobs in droves after the WWII- as historical evidence women have ‘chosen’ not to hold traditional male jobs. But she skipped over the part where Kessler-Harris said women hadn’t willingly abandoned their posts, but had been forced out to make way for returning soldiers. Rosenberg had taken similar liberties with the work of other scholars. One of the distortions of Phyllis Wallace’s study of the AT&T case was so egregious that, when challenged in court, Rosenberg retracted it and asked it to be expunged from the record. ‘It was a mistake,’ she says now, made in the rush of compiling her evidence for Sears.”
-Susan Faludi, Backlash
I’m glad I was reading Backlash when I found out about Rosenberg’s interpretation of Murray’s experiences; the context Faludi provides regarding the nature in which Rosenberg has approached “scholarship” in the past was really helpful. When someone else writes your story, they can say whatever they want about what your feelings meant, but they can only misrepresent your actions to the extent that they were never documented honestly. I agree wholeheartedly with Sternhell – it’s the life that matters in the end. Murray was amazing either way, and her emphasis on taking action rather than viewing herself as the problem is an inspiration.
Seeing my own pain as political can make me feel hopeless at times, because it reveals the overwhelming extent of what’s wrong with our society, but viewing my problems as purely personal is what actually removes all hope for change. I don’t want to do that. Identifying what’s going wrong is the first step to formulating a coherent strategy of resistance.