Conformity and Transsexualism

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My pal Az at going somewhere has a great post about the failure of nationalistic metaphors to describe transsexual experiences.

The value of his efforts recently came home to me. A non-trans friend and I discussed acceptable metaphors and stories that she as an African-American lesbian and I as a white transsexual man can say to our communities and the world at large.

We both agreed it unacceptable in a collective sense to say to our communities and the world, “I changed my gender (or became a lesbian) because I wanted to. I chose it.”

Talk about cognitive dissonance. When I have told people I chose to change my gender their faces cloud over. My answer must not have been a box on their transsexual checklist.

Every origin story told to me by others about my experiences spiral down to one presumption:

That something in my biology or spirt or whatever, something inside me – beyond my control -made me transsexual.

(My favorite origin story: I became transsexual because I am tall (6′ 2″)…..)

Ten years ago when I first started hormones, transsexuals were radical. Now academics write that our choices support the binary gender system. Doran George’s recent piece does nothing to change my opinion.

“The transsexual, unlike Bell’s [performance artist] description of transgender, identifies unequivocally with the sex they wish to become….Bell however sees this kind of passing as a reluctant conforming to the bi-polar gender divide and a self-regulatory procedure, and delights in exposing the performativity of gender……”

[Note: I don’t know very many transsexual who identify unequivocally with the sex they wish to become {not that anyone does} and the assumption that transsexual can’t expose the performativity of gender, while transgenders can, combined with the false notion that transexuality is a form of passing……YYYYYEEEEOOOOOWWWWWWWWWWWWW!!]

So here’s what I to say, besides STFU:

If you haven’t had a transsexual experience, I don’t really want to hear your opinion about my choices.

If you are transsexual and insist that I was born this way, I don’t want to hear your opinion, either. You haven’t taken the time to understand me or my experiences and refuse to honor complexity.

If you are transsexual and strive to find appropriate metaphors for our experiences, dump all metephors relating to travel and nationalism. Going from male to female isn’t like travelling between London and Paris. And transsexualism isn’t like living in exile.

If you are either transsexual or non-trans, and think we’ll find nirvana by acting like everyone else, stop with this ridiculous conformity around origin stories and motives.

I don’t need to tell myself a story about why I changed my gender. The more I do this thing that I do, the more I see it as something I wanted, and still want, to do.

If people deny me my rights because of my choices, I say, “we don’t discriminate against people because they choose Catholicism or Judaism. How is this different?”

How is this different?

I yearn for the day when transsexual stories are as complex and varied as are our experiences. I yearn for the day when academics who are not transsexual (and even those who are!) stop defining our experiences for us in an effort to either get tenure or feel better about their own gender.

We are unique. We deserve different metaphors. I know “it really isn’t a big deal” doesn’t get us much sympathy. But if it’s true, it’s true.

Ten years ago transsexuality seemed like a new frontier in America. We were exploring our options and availing ourselves of the technology available to us. That excitement about revolution now seems gone. Drowned under “oh we were born this way” or “transsexualism supports the binary gender system.”

I never changed my gender to conform. Travel and Nationalistic metaphors and unthinking academics don’t serve my soul well. Maybe they work for other transsexuals, but not for me.

In the end, only we can communicate what is most true for each of us. And in the end, the revolution will occur, in part, when we support every human being’s right to claim and tell their own origin stories.

23 Comments

  1. >>And transsexualism isn’t like living in exile.>>

    I’ve found some of them useful, if only because they help to illustrate the extent to which politics is layered over reality, be it geographical or experiential. Also, some progressives have the background to understand exile, immigration, assimilation, and national/cultural identity as complex pressures not unlike the pressures we face around gender. They do not necessarily equate “came to America” with “wanted to become like every other American.” Some of the complexity specific to gender might be lost in the translation to metaphor, but the ways gender is fraught are preserved. I got into it–I think you may have been there–with q grrl on the Ampersand thread about, “Would you change your gender if you could?” and we started using emigration metaphors to describe the difference between transsexuality and gendervariance. I said something to the effect of, “I’m pissed because people don’t seem to realize how well-defended and dangerous those borders are, and you’re pissed because people don’t seem to realize how many people already live either stateless or with dual citizenship.”

    Of course, I understand that you aren’t debating the efficacy of one metaphor over another. Rather, you’re complaining about the need to translate our experience at all. I agree that it is irritating to have to continually link this hardship to some imperfect counterpart because the people we speak to have never felt and do not recognize the pain we feel.

    I have no interest in origin myths around transsexuality, any more than I am interested in speculating on the origin of life. We don’t have enough information to say what produces transpeople, or why transpeople need to transition. We just don’t. It could be sunspots or phthalates or too much queer theory. If and when someone finds support for one hypothesis or another, I supposed I’ll be mildly interested. It won’t change my life in any way, or cause me to change any of the choices I’ve made–I don’t live as though I need justification.

    I don’t define the decisions I made as choices, exactly. I had the choice between being a transsexual and being someone who desperately wanted and needed to transition but didn’t. “Happy, well-adjusted woman” was not an option. So I didn’t choose not to be like my cisgendered friends such that transsexuality would not be a defining question in my life; that choice was made for me.

    I agree with what you’ve said about classing transsexuals out of any critique of gender–except, perhaps, as the perfect example of deluded binary victimhood. But even if it were true that transsexuality fitted into binary ideas about gender, why would we be obligated to change ourselves simply to make it harder for people to tell lies about us? I’m not responsible for the extent to which other people warp my story against my stated will, whether in the service of transphobic feminist theory or good ol’ misogyny.

  2. Piny,

    As I read your comments I realize that one of the reasons I dislike the exile metaphor so much is that it reinforces the notion that genders are rigid. That genders contain boundaries that, when crossed, should be defended.

    That it does happen is one thing. But without stating that the need to defend (through defining) the boundaries we socially construct is, in part, part of our social construction does nothing but support the gender system.

    As long as I continue to use metaphors of exile and immigration, then I reinforce a system I try to dismantle, even while knowing that it does provide a useful meeting point in progressive organizing circles.

    And I agree with you about choice. My choice wasn’t a choice, exactly. But it wasn’t something I had no control over either. I guess it is difficult to categorize impulse. Is it a choice or innate or something else entirely?

    Do you think transsexuals are being classed out of gender critique as a way to support the notion that gender queer is also radical?

    The written pieces that class-out transsexuality as binary support do so to then show that transgender is the more radical choice.

    I know there are historical precedents in my communities where transsexuals said, “no your not as radical as I am if you don’t take hormones,” but I see this intellectual tact taken by more and more academics who seem to have any real exposure to transsexuals.

    So what I wonder is: maybe this intellectual position is on of overcompemsation? Like I think people know at a profound level that ingesting hormones and having major surgeries represent major body modifications. Body modifications that transcend some people’s capacity to understand.

    If I may use a poor analogy, they seem overly macho in their efforts to state that transsexuality is just supporting the binary, because they know that transsexual body modification is, indeed, very radical.

    So radical, in fact, that if transgender underscores the performance of gender then transsexual underscores the performance of science…..

  3. >>As I read your comments I realize that one of the reasons I dislike the exile metaphor so much is that it reinforces the notion that genders are rigid. That genders contain boundaries that, when crossed, should be defended.>>

    I think that this is where you misunderstand the comparison. National identity can be as permeable as gender identity. Nationality, on the other hand, is mediated by a series of strict rules, like gender. Cultural identity can be as complex as gender identity. Cultural affiliation, however, is attributed based on much broader, more superficial terms. To take the example of an exile: someone who leaves one country for another may feel that he wholly belongs to his country of origin; or, alternately, to his country of arrival; or, finally, that he has some affiliation to both. He could have any number of reasons for leaving, and could do so at any point in his life. His legal and social status, however, likely have nothing to do with his own views and probably won’t afford more than one option. So pointing to him as an example supports the idea of gender borders in a sense, but illustrates the differences between personal and cultural conceptions of those borders. He is also useful in illustrating the fallacy that we are shoring up the gender hierarchy. Does an immigrant support or dismantle any particular idea of American by coming to America? Does his choice to obtain citizenship mean that he is like all other Americans, or that he supports America as an institution? Does citizenship preclude him from criticism or inure him to prejudice? Does it mean that he has never been other than American, or that he has no family outside of America? Or does it simply mean that he has moved from one place to another?

  4. Hi piny,

    I agree with your words. I went back and reread az’s post (referenced in the initial post) and found these statements:

    “What work does the representation of ‘happy’ immigration as gender transition accomplish? Whose interests does it serve? And if a happy migratory experience would be one where the move into one’s new gender/nation proceeded without complication, would this not be a kind of perfect assimilation? In a complicated way, the equation of gender and nation is wholly nationalist: its mode of thinking migration or crossing is assimilationist. It refuses to avow the possibility of melancholia. And in that sense, it’s overwhelmingly the reflection of whiteness, or global imperialism, about itself.”

    I think, though, that your questions raise very good points about the resistive potentials of exile/migratory experiences. I recall reading some literature by Cuban-Americans that attempt to traverse the complicated family relationships where one or more family members left Cuba and believe they will return in their lifetime while others believe themselves to be american as they define it.

    Still I find myself uncomfortable with the exile metaphor and i’m not exactly sure why. maybe its simply that I do not feel exiled now, nor did I ever feel that way.

    Too, I think the exile metaphor fails for me because I did not leave a socio political geographic location, unless I define myself as a micro country. Which maybe I can do, since I sometimes define myself as a micro economy.

    What gets lost for me in the “transsexual = exile” metaphor are all the changes specific to changing ones gender in their own country…whatever that might mean….

    And, alas, I have no formulated thoughts on the issue…

  5. “I don’t need to tell myself a story about why I changed my gender. The more I do this thing that I do, the more I see it as something I wanted, and still want, to do.”

    This is my favorite line, from a most excellent post. You are so awesome — thanks for sharing so much of you.

  6. “What work does the representation of ‘happy’ immigration as gender transition accomplish? Whose interests does it serve? And if a happy migratory experience would be one where the move into one’s new gender/nation proceeded without complication, would this not be a kind of perfect assimilation? In a complicated way, the equation of gender and nation is wholly nationalist: its mode of thinking migration or crossing is assimilationist. It refuses to avow the possibility of melancholia. And in that sense, it’s overwhelmingly the reflection of whiteness, or global imperialism, about itself.”

    This is a very good point. The success of this particular metaphor depends a great deal on the audience. If they see immigration as a largely uncomplicated, binary process with little potential disjunct between personal and political borders, then they will see us as attempting the same kind of change. If they assume that all immigrants accept assimilation, then they’ll probably accuse us of wanting it, too. If, however, they have much experience with the writings of actual immigrants–and here I could name anyone from Irving Howe to Jamaica Kincaid–then they are much more likely to understand that transition, like immigration, is complicated.

    I think that immigration is precisely right _because_, to me, immigration does involve melancholia. I don’t think “American Tail.” I think, “The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.” As happy as I am to have transitioned, I will always be someone who had to leave behind a whole set of circumstances to take up this part of my life. As much as I might fit into this role, I will always be looking back to the experiences that shaped me to be different from the men I’m now among. As much as I wanted to change, I’m resentful of the extent to which I am separated from all the qualities that used to be accepted as innate.

    One thing I am turning over again is the idea of disconnect. It seems to me that the most dichotomous aspect of this frame is the idea of two distant countries and a separate life in each. Again, this depends on conceptions of national transition, but I do have a problem with the idea of a disconnected life. I can set all kinds of boundary markers down in my recent past to separate “female” from “male.” I’ll accumulate many more within the next few years. The problem is that no one milestone is more important than any other; there’s no point at which I definitively ceased to be the woman I was and began to be the man I am now. According to some definitions, there is no point at which I cease to be a woman.

    But I think I am more comfortable with the idea of change-as-movement than you are. I live an entirely different facet of this place now.

  7. Good stuff, piny.

    “But I think I am more comfortable with the idea of change-as-movement than you are. I live an entirely different facet of this place now.”

    Actually, I think I’m very comfortable with change-as-movement.

    In fact, in my yoga practice, I can do one pose three or four times in a one hour session and see how I am changing as each minute passes.

    What I think I am uncomfortable with is that exile is not a metaphor that works for me as a transsexual. I get that it works for other transsexuals.

    And I certainly it can work.

    It’s just a problem with metaphors when they become fixed in time. The metaphor/story I tell about my transitioning is always in the past tense. By the very nature of storytelling, it can never be present.

    So whatever metaphor I chose cannot honor where I am at now.

    Because the me that is now is the me that was.

    I find you spot on when you say that no one milestone is more important than any other.

    Which, for me, translates as no one metaphor is any more important than any other.

    The more I journey inward the more I see the value of silence.

    I can see myself getting to a point where, when someone asks me what it has been like for me to transition, I might respond, “what has been like for you to transition?”

    And asking in complete earnestness. After all, the relationship I have with myself is not the same as the relationship I have with the story I am telling about myself.

    Thanks, man! You promote awesome conversation/dialogue.

  8. I meant movement more in terms of movement from nation to nation, rather than movement in terms of change or growth. But I see your point.

    >>It’s just a problem with metaphors when they become fixed in time. The metaphor/story I tell about my transitioning is always in the past tense. By the very nature of storytelling, it can never be present.

    So whatever metaphor I chose cannot honor where I am at now.

    Because the me that is now is the me that was.>>

    This is an interesting point. Are there any other journeys/changes you can think of that describe the person as in a permanent state of transition? I can think of some that can be read that way–spiritual contemplation, for example–but I don’t know if any seem particularly apt.

  9. Well, I think that the journey of simply living one’s life can be described as a permanent state of transition.

    This opinion is one of the fundamental tenets of buddhism.

    I understand that many would not read their life this way. But I think any human journey can be described this way.

  10. >>Well, I think that the journey of simply living one’s life can be described as a permanent state of transition.

    This opinion is one of the fundamental tenets of buddhism.

    I understand that many would not read their life this way. But I think any human journey can be described this way.>>

    I agree with you. It’s one of my favorite things about Buddhist teachings. But given the tendency on the part of many people to read change as moving from one fixed state to another, without devoting much attention to the stages in between, what processes do connote longer-lasting change?

  11. “What processes do connote longer-lasting change?”

    Let’s see (I’m guessing here!):
    The process of coming out
    The process of becoming a super-crip
    converting to another religion (I wonder why we don’t describe transitioning as having a conversionary experience. I certainly had one when I read my first Transgender Tapestry with an FtM on the cover and I then realized there was an entirely different way to handle my gender issues…)
    “changing” sexual orientation
    becoming permanently disabled
    recovery, as in the twelve step programs
    parenthood
    marriage
    divorce
    sumptuary changes, i.e. veganism, vegetarianism or its opposite
    taking religious vows of any kind

    others (if I’m understanding your question correctly!)?

  12. I’m not sure that these processes _connote_ permanent change, if you understand my meaning. I agree that they all _involve_ permanent change, just like transition. However, many people don’t see it that way; their conception of change in general is black-to-white, with no gray in between. It’s like with wondering whether immigration works as a metaphor for transition: if you see these borders as permeable and multilayered (if a man moves from Mexico to live with his family in a deeply segregated neighborhood in an American state, where does his new place exist in terms of those borders? What if he were forced to leave all contact with his original community behind?) then you are equipped to see transition that way, too. If your ideas about change involve much less complexity, then you won’t get it. And I’m not sure there are any other processes which are, let’s say, universally acknowledged as complex and evolving. Marriage, maybe? Parenthood?

  13. I’m way late to this very interesting exchange — but to clarify, when I say that I am wary of the easy analogy between gender crossing and migration or travel, it’s because I am wary of the ways those metaphors can get sedimented, as piny said. A metaphor or analogy is noteworthy because of the ways it gets moblised or used, and for what ends, and by whom. I am really influenced by, and working against, the work of Jay Prosser, which is (or was) so preoccupied with the idea of transness as a movement from ‘exile’ to ‘home’. I know he’s complicated and to some extent reneged on that idea since he wrote about it in Second Skins. But I see that metaphor about exile/home all the time in very normative accounts of transsexuality, emanating from within trans communities, and I wonder what the stakes are and how we can think through exile/homeyness in a more complex way. Paying particular attention to the ways in which feeling ‘at home’ in a gendered way might not add up to feeling at home within a nation, or a community, or a very Euro-American identity like ‘transsexuality’.

    Anyhow, uh, yeah, there’s my clarification. I’d also like to add that I live in a state where immigration is dominantly seen as very ‘uncomplicated’: there’s a good way to do it (wait in line, learn English, assimilate, be aspirational or upwardly mobile, apolitical and affluent, or at least grateful) and a bad way to do it (come without the right papers, be political, poor, assert the right to continue speaking one’s language(s), refuse to show gratitude, etc.) Talking about gender identity as a migratory activity can really elide the politics of that ‘migration knowledge’, unless one is willing to go further and speak about the racialised and class power dynamics of migration itself.

  14. >>I am really influenced by, and working against, the work of Jay Prosser, which is (or was) so preoccupied with the idea of transness as a movement from ‘exile’ to ‘home’. >>

    Ha! I’m definitely going to have to read the original, since I unwittingly constructed the metaphor in reverse. I see my original body and life as a home that I couldn’t stay in. Now I’m adjusting to a life that is in many ways more comfortable, and definitely more feasible, but not at all familiar.

    I haven’t encountered exile/home specifically, but there is definitely a subtext of restoration, of correcting the error upstairs that prevented us from living in our rightful bodies. This narrative is explicitly normative: it’s what we tell people so they’ll stop thinking of us as freaks. We’re not fake men, we’re cheated men.

  15. Man, you guys are deep. I understand all the words — and if I really pay attention, I even get the basic meaning and intent behind them — but it takes all I’ve got! I love smart people!

  16. “there is definitely a subtext of restoration, of correcting the error upstairs that prevented us from living in our rightful bodies. This narrative is explicitly normative: it’s what we tell people so they’ll stop thinking of us as freaks.”

    Piny — you nail it, perfectly. I hate that normative, restorative strain in trans communities, and it seems to surface far more in FTM discourse than MTF. (Maybe that’s not true, but here it certainly is.) Seems to go hand in hand with the strong desire to repudiate the actual ‘freaks’, those who are gender-ambiguous or who reject ‘transsexual’ as a label. Those people inhabit my nightmares.

  17. piny,

    you wrote:
    processes _connote_ permanent change, if you understand my meaning…

    aging?

    az, I’m pondering your observation about the normative, restorative strain appearing more in ftm communities than mtf ones.

    what i’m wondering is:
    how much of this strain is a variation of (white) masculinity, with its striving to be like christ. a project we will all fail, of course.

    It seems to me that masculinity too quickly falls back on reductionist biology to justify its existence.

    An MtF shared with me about “taking the cut.”

    “A friend asked me if I was ready for the cut. Of course, I told her I wanted bottom surgery.

    ‘No,’ she said. ‘Are you ready for the cut in pay, the cut in access, the cut in courtesy? Are you ready for how shitty people will treat you?'”

    Somehow, MtFs, those who reject the happy transsexual normative, dump the whole thing [Denise where are you????] and let go…..

    It also seems to me that we FtMs hold on to this biologically based thing….

    Which makes me conclude I have much work to do with my new slogan:

    If transgender underscores the performativity of gender,
    Then transsexual underscores the performativity of science.

  18. We both agreed it unacceptable in a collective sense to say to our communities and the world, “I changed my gender (or became a lesbian) because I wanted to. I chose it.”

    I don’t see that you NEED to explain anything to the world.
    If you desire to explain then that’s your right.
    I can respect you for just being you and be your friend just because that’s what I want. Whilst a discussion of your MO might be interesting, I have no right to expect it.

  19. Why do I need to use a static metaphor to describe my dynamic life to anyone? If you don’t grok me as I am now, just wait a minute or two – maybe someone you understand will show up in this mind. I’m as much opposed to explaining myself – via metphors or any other means – as I am to labeling myself. I’m me and you either accept that or you don’t. It’s your choice. I’ll do whatever agonizing needs to be done over explanations … and I gave up on that shit LONG ago.

    Jami

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