Trans Woman Does Not Exist? Trans Otherness and the Feminine Spectre
14 April 2023
Femininity is the spectre that haunts the psyche. It is an otherness that the trans (feminine) woman embodies. Theorising the feminine spectre through the trans woman figure elucidates the precise nature of this otherness and why it is met with such universal hostility. No place, no time, no ghetto where the trans woman – the feminine spectre – is not registered as other. Their otherness is universal. Yet they are too small numerically to fight alone against their erasure without recruiting others to their cause. It is an erasure imposed upon them rather than, as argued for here, a negation of the negation of the very conditions that determine them as women apart, in other words ‘trans’ women not simply ‘women’. The proclamation ‘transgender rights are human rights’, it is claimed at the end of the piece, functions as the universal (vanishing) mediator – the part of no part - that draws different struggles together in negation of the capitalist, white supremacist, (hetero) patriarchy. The struggle for transgender rights is thereby integral to such struggles and, if not already, must be integrated into them.
Life is an experiment. Trying things out. Gauging whether actions and behaviours elicit approval or disapproval. I am my own guinea pig. Dressed as a woman one day, a man another, noting the different responses. In masculine mode I enjoy a certain anonymity. As if in disguise. In feminine mode I am out there. As if on display. It triggers. Items that clothe a cis woman’s body are on mine like an everyday object on display in an art gallery. They provoke, they trigger, they cause cognitive dissonance. My body frames the feminine, a frame that captures the observer and rewards them an enigma, the enigma at the core of being disruptive to the otherwise stable ideas held of self and society. Is it a bird or is it a plane? No, it is a [trans] woman.
Femininity is in the spotlight. A spotlight that turns onto the observer. The impulse to look a motor response to sensory phenomena that, as if bypassing the brain, appears to require no interpretation. Obviously, it is a male dressed as a woman. Interpretation here the work of an unconscious that is clearly triggered. An unconscious, as Lacan declares, structured like a language. An unconscious in which signifiers are structured to reflect cultural binaries whereby masculine is charged positive (+) and feminine negative (-): phallus and castration. An androcentric unconscious. Signifiers that connect and disconnect across broken chains and cluster together to connote masculinity behind which is the dark unrepresentable feminine matter.
The spectre puts what is largely unconscious in the spotlight, the crosshairs even of a psyche that wants to exorcise it. They strike discord. First, in the Imaginary constellation, the idea one holds that their gender is an authentic expression of being. Second, in the Symbolic constellation, the big Other, society as such, as guarantor of the unconscious fantasy that brooks no opposition to the binary construct.
When the spectre is permitted, even protected by law, the big Other is discredited and there is a loss of symbolic efficiency. Mocked for being ‘woke’, called upon to impose ‘common sense’, society offers no guarantee of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of transgender. The statement ‘transgender rights are human rights’ underlines what is here at stake in this dialectic. On the one hand, to restore order by depriving trans people of their designation. On the other, to legitimate self-designation. Liberals or TERFs, either way the feminine spectre is compelled to justify itself in the language of the Other, a language lacking precision and always prone to slippage. We would prefer not to. But refusal is never really an option.
The spectre materialises the fact that born of signification every gender is dysphoric. Which is to say, irrespective of whether we identify as cis or trans – or neither - gender is itself only ever a symbolic means through which order is imposed onto a sex that bears no inherent signification. The feminine is the Real that elides signification. A pure negativity, it is the negation or negative instance of every positive or phallic attempt to put human sexuality in order. The feminine spectre fascinates because it exposes or brings to light the failure of signification, the failure to pin the symbolic tale to the material donkey. It is feared and reviled because it is failure that, whether woman or man, the subject is unable to reconcile itself to. All gazes in this respect are masculine. The object stoking fascination and fear feminine. Exposing the lack at the core of being, the feminine spectre returns the repressed content of the androcentric unconscious.
We are other to ourselves. Describing his racialised profile in a predominantly white America, Du Bois’s notion of the double-conscious comes to mind. ‘A peculiar sensation’, he says, ‘always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others… two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideas…’ It is an otherness that I see when putting on my makeup, taking care to conceal the dark hairs on my face, choosing figure shaping undergarments to take the wind out of me, a jacket complementary to my dress to establish a feminine frame. Each act is a conscious endeavour to represent my ego-ideal, simply that of a woman with the classic femininity of legends such as Audrey Hepburn, Coco Chanel, Jean Moreau and Monica Vitti the preferred style. Old school, with new school sensibilities. Makeup is my medium; the medium the message that I am a woman. It is received whenever the barista, waiter, taxi driver or shop assistant addresses me madam.
The spectre, the genie, cannot be put back in the imaginary / symbolic bottle but which, at the same time, cannot be fully accommodated without undermining the material basis on which the circulation and expansion of capital depends. We are the spanner in the works.
Capitalism relies on patriarchy as a means through which to subordinate (cis) women to the role of reproducing and tending to a labour force. Moreover, androcentric to ensure a subject which is predominantly libidinally invested in competing for the objects that are valorised for the purposes of exchange: objects and accolades to improve employability / exploitability and, in the form of commodities, objects (brands and so forth) that accord status. Most of all, it requires a subject who is invested in maintaining law and order through regressive fantasies of idealised symbolic harmony. In short, it requires an ongoing investiture in alienated labour, consumption for consumption’s sake and the repressive state apparatuses that, whether through the police, military and prisons or psychopaths at the top of corporate and state hierarchies, ensure domination. Hence, the material basis of androcentrism. Hence, a phallic sexuality that craves status, power and domination, fears exposure - humiliation - and opposes anyone deemed to have deprived them of their object or threatens to take it away. In their symbolic inconsistency and insistence that they are nonetheless a woman, the feminine spectre threatens the cherished Imaginary and Symbolic ideals to which so many cleave.
The gaze is captured in the death head, Lacan writes on Holbein’s The Ambassadors, a skull framed in a mirror at an oblique angle at the bottom of the painting. It returns our own nothingness.
As Žižek explains:
The best way to exemplify this inversion is via the dialectic of view and gaze: in what I see, in what is open to my view, there is always a point where "I see nothing," a point which "makes no sense," i.e., which functions as the picture's stain-this is the point from which the very picture returns the gaze, looks back at me. "A letter arrives at its destination" precisely in this point of the picture: here I encounter myself, my own objective correlative-here I am, so to speak, inscribed in the picture; this ontic "umbilical cord" of the ontological horizon is what is unthinkable for the entire philosophical tradition, Heidegger included.
‘Crazy times’, a stranger mumbles as I walk past him. The feminine spectre is the death head for the masculine gaze.
Every signifier requires translation, every translation can only ever be an approximation. The difference here is that in feminine mode I (re)present this gap and am demonstrative of the inadequacy of language to fill it. In the most extreme instances my appearance renders the observer speechless, lost for words. Words must be ‘found’, (re)discovered, in a kind of colonisation. In masculine mode, on the other hand, I am simply lost in translation, as with any man, a mere abstraction that mystifies this feminine otherness. In women’s clothes my symbolic femininity is no less of a mystification or masking effect. The difference is that it is objectified as a mystification. In other words, what may hitherto be naturalised is revealed as culturally contingent. If therefore I am more authentic to myself in women’s clothes, it has nothing to do with being feminine in my essence. It is because the need to represent the phallus is traversed: in other words, to be the man. If I am female, it is not through any delusion of being the bodily equivalent of a cis woman nor because of any operation I may or may not have undertaken. I was not male in the first place nor female in the last instance. Such designations are always man-made. The primary signifier the phallus that the paternal authority bequeaths. It names, it shames, it instils guilt that those who want to come out as trans must refuse. The declaration that I am female is the determinate negation of all such man-made significations. I am female. Otherwise, I am chained to and a locksmith of a destructive abstraction. In other words, man and masculinity.
Part of No Part
‘I am woman’ yet, to another, I am not woman, I am trans. I am not your trans. Yet I must nonetheless identify with this term to count myself amongst those fighting for transgender rights and against the increasingly more extreme attempts to deny them. And once again this struggle primarily concerns the feminine spectre. Hence the predominance of the slogan ‘Trans women are women.’ If the symbolic order is androcentric, the struggle for transgender rights is itself a determinate negation of androcentrism. All the powers have assembled into a holy alliance to exorcise the spectre: Neo-fascists, Communist Bros., Feminists, the ‘anti-woke’ brigade, the Psychoanalytic Institution, Slavoj Žižek.
If trans, as some indelicately suggest, is the new Jew, they are so on the following terms. No place, no time, that they are other than Other, a universality that applies to trans women and trans women alone. Their otherness is compelled by their being women, a name which nonetheless is decided upon rather than ‘given’ (unlike the ‘gift’ of being designated black by the coloniser that cannot be refused). It is predicated on a refusal to give ground to guilt, an act in the properly Lacanian sense. Intolerable to the androcentric unconscious and a structural androcentrism, it is woman, therefore, as determinate negation of man. Striking fear, fascination, hatred and resentment in the observer, their otherness overturns presuppositions about how a person, as culturally determined sex, ought to look and behave. Opening a fissure in the Imaginary and Symbolic registers, it is an otherness that draws the observer into an encounter with the Real. Numerically minuscule, they are almost entirely reliant on those who do not identify as trans to act in solidarity with them to protect and advance their rights. Categorically, their struggle is not identitarian for the precise reason that it must necessarily recruit others who are likewise marginalised, discriminated against, othered and oppressed into their struggle. Differences which are caught up in the self-same antagonism, one that primarily connects class, racialised and gendered forms of oppression: capitalism, white supremacy, (hetero) patriarchy. As with each of these instances, the objective of a trans otherness is to enact its own negation by negating the very conditions on which they are named trans and therein othered. Not through erasure as self-styled ‘LGB’ groups fantasise. Thus, in the final analysis, there is no trans, only woman and insofar that society must logically thereby be reconciled to the feminine under such circumstances, all gender categories, masculine, feminine and so forth, become redundant or, if identified with, without deleterious effects on one’s life or the lives of others. Trans otherness is the manifest possibility of a non-phallic sexuality and, without recourse to the therapist, a collective ‘traversing of the fantasy’. The street is their couch.
If a comparison can indeed be made in respect to jews and anti-Semitism, it is the fear and paranoia that those we take to be cis are in fact trans. Just as jews were often indistinguishable from any other German, there are some trans women using women only facilities who pass as cis. But this paranoia relies on the visibility of the feminine spectre as material evidence of the trans woman and the possibility that some trans women do indeed pass.
Everywhere Other and all of the time, trans is the numerical exception that is not in itself constitutionally capable of promoting its interests except through alliances with other oppressed and marginalised groups. And in respect to the above, alliances are not simply forged in solidarity with trans people, they are forged on the very terms on which allies are themselves marginalised and oppressed.
This was spectacularly demonstrated during a recent protest that took place in Auckland, Aotearoa, when Brit transphobe Posie Parker aka Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull toured Australasia with her politics of hate. In Melbourne, her prior stop, Neo-Nazis rallied to her defence, a contingent she actively courts. Between 3000 and 5000 protesters gathered by the rotunda in Albert Park in central Auckland where she was due to speak. A site of ‘free-speech’. Far outnumbering the neo-Nazis, free speech and men’s rights groups that gathered there in her support, police and hired security sequestered her away. It made global headlines attracting the ire of ‘women’s groups’, even some self-proclaimed socialists. The ‘rainbow community’, they said, had revealed its blood-soaked teeth by demonstrating that they are at core violent and, by silencing a woman, misogynistic. Shocked by the reception, and no doubt revelling in the attention she received, Parker cancelled her planned appointment in Wellington and, hurrying off to the International terminal at Auckland airport, declared New Zealand ‘the worst place for women I have ever visited.’
Evaluated in terms of trans visibility, we were vastly outnumbered by cis men and women, gays and lesbians, workers and people of various colours standing up against fascism. The collective counted as one in antagonism to transphobia / transmisogyny, racism, homophobia and coloniality, the nationality of the person spreading her hate not lost on Māori and Pasifika peoples. It stood against sexism and misogyny, splintering off at one stage to confront a parallel demonstration organised in support of Parker by the neo-fascist Destiny’s Church. Led by Brian Tamaki, the movement was central to the anti-vaccination protests at the height of Covid-19 and, not without irony, though never tweeted by JK Rowling’s, recruits violent men convicted of domestic abuse into their movement on the grounds that their violence was justified and they the victims of the women they violently abused. It is this, not transgender, that underlines the vacuity of identity politics. In a state of intellectual slumber, it is one fought in the name and name alone of ‘women’ which many women, awake to this absurdity, categorically do not recognise themselves in.
Transgender rights thereby function as the name or vanishing mediator connecting a multitude of different struggles whose alignment proved politically efficacious in forcing this colonialist, transphobe who courts the support of neo-Fascists and misogynists out of the country.
Žižek legitimately points out that even where there is truth in a claim, the argument in defence of a prejudice, say of the Nazi who justifies their anti-Semitism on the grounds that jews held economic and cultural power, their justification is still absolutely indefensible. Despite his frequent exposure of the fallacies on which prejudices are based, Žižek deploys the same tactics when citing the example of a convicted rapist who, while in prison, changed their gender designation to woman. Scorning the Scottish government’s attempt to make it easier for individuals to change their designation at the ages of 16 and 17 as pushing ‘woke-ism and LGBT causes (almost) to the end’, his signature capacity to turn ‘common sense’ on its head fails him when it comes to transgender. ‘It is quite logical’, he writes, that ‘[I]f maleness and femaleness have nothing to do with one’s body, and everything to do with one’s subjective self-definition, then one must put a penis-having rapist in prison with captive women.’ Aside from the fact that it does not logically follow when surely it is possible to make exceptions for exceptional cases and find other ways to legislate them, it is an extreme and singular example on which a set of flimsy, ill-conceived and ignorant assertions are subsequently made in defence, however Žižek views himself, of a transphobic position. ‘Transgenderism’, a term he deploys as if to suggest that trans identity is an ideology and shadowy conspiracy, has become an object cause to which he conflates a ‘woke’ identitarian politics which, while the latter deserves criticism, serves as an umbrella under which his pet hates are found.
One of the frequently repeated tropes in justification of transmisogyny is that because trans women are males and therefore naturally aggressive, it stands to reason cis women are put at risk if trans women are accorded access to women’s spaces. The idea that a man would go to such extraordinary lengths by dressing and identifying as a woman - something he would no doubt find deeply humiliating and repulsive - to access spaces such as lavatories he could simply walk into dressed as a man, is patently absurd. This trope is nonetheless frequently deployed, including by Žižek himself, in attempts to deprive trans women of their rights. It logically follows from such claims that women are naturally more caring and nurturing. Maybe we should be kept out of the domestic space too where women are naturally better disposed to child rearing. Both perspectives are essentially misogynistic and cannot in fact be divorced from one another. The reduction of humans to animalism finds parallels even in the white supremacist perspective on the black faced savage. It furthermore reinforces the view that there is no feasible alternative to capitalism when it is in our nature to aggressively pursue our animal instincts. Demonstrating that another world, another kind of subjective formation, is possible, the feminine spectre is objective refutation of such claims.
The struggle for transgender rights belongs then in the class struggle and, as with race, cannot be subordinated to class. Given the presence of transphobia on the left and as a device deployed by the far right to devastating effect, a struggle must be fought in movements and parties themselves. The feminine spectre was all along and is, after all things considered, a communist.
 Du Bois, W. E. B. In Zuckerman, Philip. (2004) The Social Theory of W.E.B. du Bois. London: Sage p23  A more detailed elucidation of the materiality of transmisogyny can be found in chapter four of my 2021 book The Future is Feminine: Capitalism and the Masculine Disorder. London: Bloomsbury Academic.  Žižek, Slavoj. (1992) Enjoy Your Symtom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out. New York: Routledge p15  Ian Powell provides a useful summary of the protests and reactions to it, including on the New Zealand left in his blog https://politicalbytes.blog/2023/04/02/class-transphobia-and-street-democracy/  https://compactmag.com/article/wokeness-is-here-to-stay