Gender and Transgender Criticism

In the introduction to their book GendersDavid Glover and Cora Kaplan make the observation that: ‘gender is a much contested concept, as slippery as it is indispensable, but a site of unease rather than agreement’ (Glover and Kaplan, 2000, ix). As a neologism founded upon an already disputed term, therefore, `transgender’ is doubly problematic. Describing the etymology of the word, Jay Prosser observes that `transgender’ has both a specific and a general function, describing an individual who `crossed the lines of gender but not of sex’, as well as

function[ing] as a container term, one that refers not only to transgenderists but to those subjects from whom it was originally invented to distinguish transgenderists: transsexuals and drag queens, transvestites and crossdressers, along with butches and intersexuals and any subject to `transes’ sex or gender boundaries. (Prosser, 1998, 176)

Furthermore, it is difficult to define exactly the ground covered by either term, since both tend to elide into theoretical territories identified by other names. Indeed, it could be argued that it is only recently that gender and transgender theory have emerged as categories in their own right, as both have tended to have been developed through debates within, for example, feminist theory, queer theory, masculinity theory, postcolonial theory, philosophy, and gay and lesbian studies. Both words also `double up’ in another way, too, for they are as much political as they are theoretical, interacting with the material world that exists beyond the intellectual realm of the academy, and are thus descriptive of movements within politics and sociology as well as ideas to do with culture and representation.

One of the founding thinkers concerning gender was the psychoanalyst Robert Stoller, who in 1968 published Sex and Gender: On the Development of Masculinity and Femininity, in which he drew a distinction between sex and gender which has proved invaluable to subsequent theorists. Regarding gender as `culturally determined’ (Stoller, 1968, ix), he argued that an individual’s gender identity may not necessarily correspond to their biological sexual characteristics:

[O]ne can speak of the male sex or the female sex, but one can also talk about masculinity and femininity and not necessarily be implying anything about anatomy or physiology. Thus, while sex and gender seem to common sense to be practically synonymous, and in everyday life to be inextricably bound together, one purpose of this study will be to confirm the fact that the two realms (sex and gender) are not at all inevitably bound in anything like a onetoone relationship, but each may go in its quite independent way. (Stoller, 1968, xiii)

From this perspective, therefore, gender can be viewed as a behaviour, a learned or conditioned response to a society’s view of how men and women should act. The motivation behind much of the twentieth century feminist movement stems from such a view: the belief that, while men’s and women’s biological difference is an inescapable fact, inequalities between them stem from culturally generated biases concerning the gendered categories of `masculinity’ and `femininity’. The idea that gender is culturally constructed was invaluable to feminists of the second wave, such as Kate Millett, who in Sexual Politics (1970) drew on Robert Stoller‘s work in order to argue that women’s oppression is rooted in social conceptions of `femininity’. Gayle Rubin‘s 1975 essay, The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex, made a very similar point. She defines what she calls a `sex/gender system’ as `the set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity’ (Humm, 1992, 257).

By the late 1980s, however, such feminist arguments were coming under attack from theorists steeped in postmodernist theory, for whom the assumption that all women are oppressed within a crosscultural gender system appears dangerously simplistic. In The Technology of Gender, published in 1987, Teresa de Lauretis claims that `the notion of gender as sexual difference’ has  now become a limitation, something of a liability to feminist thought’ (de Lauretis 1987, 1). In its insistence on placing `male’ and `female’ in opposition, the feminist definition of gender `keeps feminist thinking bound to the terms of Western patriarchy itself, contained within the frame of a conceptual opposition’ (de Lauretis, 1987, 1). In order to escape from this dialectic, which does not enable differences between `women’ as a category to be articulated, `we need a notion of gender that is not so bound up with sexual difference as to be virtually coterminous with it’ (de Lauretis, 1987, 2). For de Lauretis, the answer lies in approaching gender as a representation, `a symbolic system or system of meanings, that correlates sex to cultural contents according to social values and hierarchies’ (de Lauretis, 1987, 5), and investigating how the gendered subject is produced through a variety of discourses and technologies. As a film theorist, her primary concern is with cinema, which functions as a `technology of gender’ (de Lauretis, 1987, 13) in the way in which it constructs sexualized images of women through a range of cinematic techniques (camera angles, lighting and so on), and codes (the positioning of the viewing subject in relation to the image viewed). The consequence of such an anatomization of gender as a systemis that it will enable the feminist theorist to occupy (however briefly) a space outside the gender system in an `ongoing effort to create new spaces of discourse, to rewrite cultural narratives, and to define the terms of another perspective – a view from “elsewhere” ‘ (de Lauretis, 1987, 25). Such a perspective, however, is always contingent, in a permanent process of oscillation within and without gender ideologies: what de Lauretis terms `a movement between the (represented) discursive space of the positions made available by hegemonic discourses and the spaceoff, the elsewhere, of those discourses’ (de Lauretis, 1987, 26).

De Lauretis‘s argument, therefore, abandons simplistic sex/gender distinctions in order to argue for gender as a complex discursive construction. The theorist Judith Butler, however, whose book Gender Trouble, published in 1990, has exercised an enormous influence upon modern gender theory, goes even further. Like de Lauretis, Butler takes issue with feminist conceptions of gender, which, she says, `has assumed that there is some existing identity, understood through the category of women, who not only initiates feminist interests and goals within discourse, but constitutes the subject for whom political representation is pursued’ (Butler, 1990, 1). While de Lauretis, however, retains an adherence to the notion of a subjectivity which is implicated in a process of `continuous engagement in social reality’ (de Lauretis, 1987, 18), Butler is concerned with a more radical deconstruction of the subject. Her argument proceeds from the assumption that a universal concept of `woman’ is a signifier which has become divorced from humanist conceptions of subjectivity, and thus `is no longer understood in stable or abiding terms’ (Butler, 1990, 1) – it is `a troublesome term, a site of contest, a cause for anxiety’ (Butler, 1990, 3).

For Butler, the distinction between sex and gender is one way in which simplistic notions of `woman’ are troubled, for `[t]he unity of the subject is thus already potentially contested by the distinction that permits of gender as a multiple interpretation of sex’ (Butler, 1990, 6). Following the path of her logic to the extreme, she proceeds to argue that:

If gender is the cultural meanings that the sexed body assumes, then a gender cannot be said to follow from a sex in any one way. Taken to its logical limit, the sex/gender distinction suggests a radical discontinuity between sexed bodies and culturally constructed genders. Assuming for the moment the stability of binary sex, it does not follow that the construction of `men’ will accrue exclusively to the bodies of males or that `women’ will interpret only female bodies. Further, even if the sexes appear to be unproblematically binary in their morphology and constitution (which will become a question), there is no reason to assume that genders ought also to remain as two. The presumption of a binary gender system implicitly retains the belief in a mimetic relation of gender to sex whereby gender mirrors sex or is otherwise restricted by it. When the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a freefloating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one.

This radical splitting of the gendered subject poses yet another set of problems. Can we refer to a `given’ sex or a `given’ gender without first inquiring into how sex and/or gender is given, through what means? And what is `sex’ anyway? Is it natural, anatomical, chromosomal, or hormonal, and how is a feminist critic to assess the scientific discourses which purport to establish such `facts’ for us? . . . If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called `sex’ was as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all. (Butler, 1990, 6-7)

This statement constitutes a radical leap beyond the sphere of debate established by de Lauretis, for what Butler effectively does in this passage is to turn the `sex versus gender’ argument on its head. Not only does she point out the radical consequences of cutting gender free from sex, the signifier from the body being signified, she also begins to interrogate the very means by which the concept of `sex’ itself is produced. In this context, `sex’ has as little to do with biology as gender: `[g]ender ought not be conceived merely as the cultural inscription of meaning on a pregiven sex . . . ; gender must also designate the very apparatus of production whereby the sexes themselves are established’ (Butler, 1990, 7).

The implications of this argument are far reaching, since it comes to affect the very concept of identity. As Butler asks, `[h]ow do the regulatory practices that govern gender also govern culturally intelligible notions of identity?’ (Butler, 1990, 16-17). The subject, therefore, is not granted a priori existence in Butler‘s argument, but is in the constant process of being constituted and maintained through a network of discourses: it is always, to use her words, a `fictive production’ (Butler, 1990, 24).

In this sense, gender is not a noun, but neither is it a set of freefloating attributes, for we have seen that the substantive effect of gender is performatively produced and compelled by the regulatory practices of gender coherence. Hence, within the inherited discourse of the metaphysics of substance, gender proves to be performative – that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be. In this sense, gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the deed. (Butler, 1990, 24-5)

Although this process is rendered invisible within the context of the cultural `norm’ of heterosexuality, subversive sexual practices and bodily performances call it into question by threatening to establish identities outside of the confines of the masculine/feminine paradigm. In Gender Trouble, Butler looks at practices such as crossdressing and drag, arguing that, in their parodic imitation of gender norms, they highlight the performativity which is an essential element of all gendered behaviour.

As much as drag creates a unified picture of `woman’ (what its critics often oppose), it also reveals the distinctness of those aspects of gendered experience which are falsely naturalized as a unity through the regulatory fiction of heterosexual coherence. In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself – as well as its contingency. (Butler, 1990, 137)

If no appeal can be made, therefore, to a `true’ or `authentic’ identity based on gender or on sex, heterosexual binarism gives way to an infinite range of gendered identities and practices: and it is from this line of reasoning that transgender theory springs.

It has already been noted that gender theorists such as Judith Butler seek to destabilize universal notions of `woman’: an endeavour which argues against centuries of certainty concerning the meaning of that term. `Transgender’, on the other hand, is a word which has no history, and no basis in a stable epistemology – it is, axiomatically, a volatile and muchdisputed term. As transsexual activist Riki Anne Wilchins says, the meaning of `transgender’ is fluid, and under constant qualification:

Transgender began its life as a name for those folks who identified neither as crossdressers nor as transsexuals – primarily people who changed their gender but not their genitals . . . The term gradually mutated to include any gender queers who didn’t actually change their genitals: crossdressers, transgenders, stone butches, hermaphrodites and drag people. Finally, tossing in the towel on the nounlist approach, people began using it to refer to transsexuals as well, which was fine with some transsexuals, but made others feel they were being erased. (Wilchins, 1997, 15-16)

In her book Gender Outlaw, Kate Bornstein displays a similar struggle with definition, arguing for the use of `transgendered’ as a collective noun capable of encompassing the infinite variety of subversive gender identities in order to bind them together into a cohesive site upon which to base a politics of activism.

So let’s reclaim the word `transgendered’ so as to be more inclusive. Let’s let it mean `transgressively gendered’. Then, we have a group of people who break the rules, codes, and shackles of gender. Then we have a healthysized contingent! It’s the transgendered who need to embrace the lesbians and gays, because it’s the transgendered who are in fact the more inclusive category. (Bornstein, 1994, 234-5)

Many texts in transgender studies do not make use of the term at all, as evinced by Sandy Stone‘s essay The Empire Strikes Back: a Posttransexual Manifesto, published in 1992. This essay outlines the key features of this area of theory, arguing that, for transsexuals themselves, the transsexed body does not necessarily represent the potential for gender subversion envisaged by theorists such as Butler. Instead, Stone asserts that transsexuals, who desire surgical intervention in order to literally become a member of the opposite gender, have very stereotyped ideas concerning gender identity. `Sex and gender’, she argues, `are quite separate issues, but transsexuals commonly blur the distinction by confusing the performative character of gender with the physical “fact” of sex, referring to their perceptions of their situation as being in the “wrong” body’ (Stone 1992, 281-2). In fact, the medical discourse surrounding gender reassignment surgery demands that no differentiation be made between gender and sex, since `candidates for surgery were evaluated on the basis of their performance in the gender of choice. The criteria constituted a fully acculturated, consensual definition of gender’ (Stone, 1992, 291). This is reflected in the narratives of sex change found in transsexual autobiographies, in which `the authors . . . reinforce a binary, oppositional mode of gender identification. They go from being unambiguous men, albeit unhappy men, to unambiguous women. There is no territory between’ (Stone, 1992, 286).

Stone‘s essay is an appeal to the transsexual community to formulate different stories of gender identity, instead of colluding with medical discourses that entrap them within the male/female binarism. She portrays the transsexual body as a `battlefield . . . a hotly contested site of cultural inscription, a meaning machine for the production of ideal type’ (Stone, 1992, 294), and argues for the necessity of a counter discourse which would originate from within transsexualism itself. Such a refusal to be reabsorbed into society’s views of what constitutes `normal’ or `natural’ gender would result, according to Stone, in the construction of a historical narrative of transsexualism which would throw into high relief the constructedness of all gender identities:

In the transsexual as text we may find the potential to map the refigured body onto conventional gender discourse and thereby disrupt it, to take advantage of the dissonances created by such a juxtaposition to fragment and reconstitute the elements of gender in new and unexpected geometries. (Stone, 1992, 296)

Transsexuals must, therefore, resist the imperative to `pass’, creating identities for themselves which correspond absolutely to dominant ideological expectations concerning gender. Instead, they should seek for ways to represent `the intertextual possibilities of the transsexual body’ (Stone, 1992, 297), grounding their histories in the gaps and interstices between gender categories. Stone ends her essay by imagining the implications of such an act. In articulating their difference and variety, Stone envisages a situation in which

[t]he disruptions of the old patterns of desire that the multiple dissonances of the transsexual body imply produce not an irreducible alterity but a myriad of alterities, whose unanticipated juxtapositions hold what Donna Haraway has called the promises of monsters – physicalities of constantly shifting figure and ground that exceed the frame of any possible representation. (Stone, 1992, 299)

Stone‘s mention of Donna Haraway in the extract quoted above indicates the importance of her work as an intertext for her essay. Indeed, Stone’s choice of title – The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto – itself constitutes a linguistic gesture towards Haraway‘s influential piece A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century, originally published in Socialist Review in 1985. Although Haraway is not a transgender theorist per se, in that she does not herself write from a position within the transgender community, Stone’s referencing of Haraway indicates the usefulness of many of her ideas to the ongoing task of formulating a transgendered discourse.

The figure which occupies an iconic position in Haraway‘s argument in this essay is the cyborg, which she describes as `a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction’ (Haraway, 1991, 149). Although the cyborg is an imaginary creation drawn from science fiction, for Haraway it functions as a potent symbol of the contradictions encountered by female subjects in a twentiethcentury technocracy, in which they are aligned with a `natural’ condition which is increasingly being called into question by the expansion of industrial capitalism. Although Haraway’s concern is with women, as Stone discerns, her statements concerning the cyborg translate well into a transgender context. For a start, Haraway is emphatic in her claim that `[t]he cyborg is a creature in a postgender world; it has no truck with bisexuality, preoedipal symbiosis, unalienated labour, or other seductions to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity'(Haraway, 1991, 150). The cyborg, therefore, like the transgendered subject, disrupts gender binaries purely by the fact of its existence. Because its genesis lies outside the boundaries of gender, it has no myth of origin, and thus no history: it `would not recognise the Garden of Eden’ (Haraway, 1991, 151). Instead, the body of the cyborg springs from a complex of alliances formed between technology, capitalism and science, just as does the surgically transformed transgendered body in Stone’s analysis. But although both the cyborg and the transgendered individual are generated from within such materialistic practices, they also call them into question through the very fact of their hybridity. As Haraway says:

A cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints. The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point. Single vision produces worse illusions than double vision or many-headed monsters. Cyborg unities are monstrous and illegitimate; in our present political circumstances, we could hardly hope for more potent myths for resistance and recoupling. (Haraway, 1991, 154)

Compare this with Judith Butler‘s assertion in Gender Trouble that `the very notion of “the person” is called into question by the cultural emergence of those “incoherent” or “discontinuous” gendered beings who appear to be persons but who fail to conform to the gendered norms of cultural intelligibility by which persons are defined’ (Butler, 1990, 17). Both cyborgs and the transgendered subject are figures who disrupt determinist ideologies and standpoints, breaching categories and signalling new, often contradictory, possibilities for alliances across boundaries. Moreover, both call the concept of subjectivity itself into question, for neither can be codified and contained within discourses which appeal to essentialist conceptions of what constitutes the `natural’. The cyborg, says Haraway, `is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self’, and a cyborg politics would foreground the belief that `the body . . . can be dispersed and interfaced in nearly infinite, polymorphous ways’ (Harway, 1991, 163). Indeed, by the end of her essay, Haraway, while still ostensibly addressing a feminist audience, certainly gestures towards the possibility of the cyborg’s functioning as a transgendered symbol.

Our bodies, ourselves; bodies are maps of power and identity. Cyborgs are no exception. A cyborg body is not innocent; it was not born in a garden; it does not seek unitary identity and so generate antagonistic dualisms without end (or until the world ends); it takes irony for granted. One is too few, and two is only one possibility . . . Cyborgs might consider more seriously the partial, fluid, sometimes aspect of sex and sexual embodiment. Gender might not be global identity after all, even if it has profound historical breadth and depth. (Haraway, 1991, 180)

In her wish to cut the transgendered body lose from essentialist myths of origin, and her assertion that its `[e]mergent polyvocalities of lived experience’ (Stone, 1992, 293) will lay stress on gender identity as something attained rather than something inborn, Sandy Stone develops the possibilities Haraway‘s cyborg presents to transgender theory. Moreover, Stone does not merely extend the content of Haraway‘s argument: importantly, she also appropriates its rhetorical tone. The first section of A Cybrog Manifesto, subheaed An Ironic Dream of a Common Language for Women in the Integrated Circuit‘ (Haraway, 1991, 149,) signals the importance of irony as a key tactic in Haraway‘s debate:

Irony is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically, about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true. Irony is about humour and serious play. It is also a rhetorical strategy and a political method. (Haraway, 1991, 149)

It can be argued that irony forms the dominant mode of representation, too, within many transgendered narratives which, like Sandy Stone‘s, tend to mingle the personal with the political and lived experience with theory. Stone’s essay draws attention to the importance of autobiography in transgender writing, texts which conventionally chart the process of surgical gender reassignment. The first fully autobiographical work by a transsexual, I Changed My Sex!, was published by Hedy Jo Star in the mid 1950s, and it has been followed by many other transgender accounts, including A Personal Biography by Christine Jorgensen (1967) and Conundrum: An Extraordinary Narrative of Transsexualism by the journalist Jan Morris (1974)

The autobiographical mode, however, gave way in the 1990s to a new form of transgender writing which has clearly been influenced by the rise of gender theory, but which also retains, albeit in an ironic form, much of the autobiographical drive towards selfdisclosure. In The Empire Strikes Back, Sandy Stone comments that `many transsexuals keep something they call by the argot term “O.T.F.”: The Obligatory Transsexual File. This usually contains newspaper articles and bits of forbidden diary entries about “inappropriate” gender behaviour’ (Stone, 1992, 285), and this notion of a transgendered identity assembled, postmodern style, out of fragments collated from a variety of sources, becomes a concept central to theoretical writing produced by the transgendered themselves.

One of the texts in this area which has achieved the most prominence is Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us by the male to female transsexual Kate Bornstein. The critic Jay Prosser has observed that this text constitutes `[o]ur first “postmodern” transsexual (thus post-transexual) autobiography’ which `fragments continuous and connective narrative into deliberately disjointed vignettes. Bornstein doesn’t so much narrativize her transsexual life as (a performance artist) she performs it, acting out – without integrating into a singular stable gendered identity – its parts’ (Prosser, 1998, 174). Bornstein herself claims the book is an attempt to develop `a transgendered style’ which is `based on collage. You know – a little bit from here, a little bit from there? Sort of a cut and paste thing’ (Bornstein, 1994, 3). The typography of her text emphasizes this, its mosaic of different typefaces and layouts echoing Bornstein‘s vacillation between personal disclosure and theorizing. At the heart of it all, however, is a serious debate about identity, both personal and collective. But as far as Bornstein is concerned, as a heterosexual man transformed into a lesbian woman, gender identity is a polymorphous, infinitely mutable, concept:

I love the idea of being without an identity, it gives me a lot of room to play around; but it makes me dizzy, having nowhere to hang my hat. When I get too tired of not having an identity, I take one on: it doesn’t really matter what identity I take on, as long as it’s recognizable. I can be a writer, a lover, a confidante, a femme, a top, or a woman. (Bornstein, 1994, 39)

Bornstein is a true posttransexual in the sense of Stone’s use of the word, in that she argues against the transsexual desire for gender conformity, for the attainment of `true’ masculinity or femininity. And while she clearly believes in the necessity of the acquisition of a gender identity, which, she says, `answers the question “who am I?” ‘ (Bornstein, 1994, 24), that identity is neither innate nor fixed:

What does a man feel like?
What does a woman feel like?
Do you feel `like a man?’
Do you feel `like a woman?’
I’d really like to know that from people.
(Bornstein, 1994, 24)

Instead, she argues for a fluid concept of gender, which `is the refusal to remain one gender or another. Gender fluidity is the ability to freely and knowingly become one or many of a limitless number of genders, for any length of time, at any rate of change’ (Bornstein, 1994, 52). To this end, Bornstein proposes the concept of the `third’, `the concept of the outlaw, who subscribes to a dynamic of change, outside any given dichotomy’ (Bornstein, 1994, 97).

Bornstein‘s approach, if not quite her upbeat tone, is echoed in a text published three years later: Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender by Riki Anne Wilchins. Like Bornstein, Wilchins‘ book is a mixture of theorization (Michel Foucault and Judith Butler are among the references cited) and personal exploration, presented in an assemblage of styles and typography. Wilchins, another maletofemale transsexual, similarly argues against the sex/gender distinction:

Gender is not what culture creates out of my body’s sex; rather, sex is what culture makes when it genders my body. The cultural system of gender looks at my body, creates a narrative of binary difference, and says, `Honest, it was here when I arrived. It’s all Mother Nature’s doing.’ The story of a natural sex that justifies gender evaporates, and we see sex standing revealed as an effect of gender, not its cause. Sex, the bodily feature most completely intheraw, turns out to be thoroughly cooked, and our comforting distinction between sex and gender collapses. We are left staring once again at the Perpetual Motion Machine of gender as it spins endlessly on and on, creating difference at every turn. (Wilchins, 1997, 51)

However, the tone of the extract cited above is an indicator that Wilchins regards the creation of a `third’ space as a more problematic project than does Bornstein. As she says: `Perhaps sex is not a noun at all. Perhaps it is really a verb, a cultural imperative – as in “Sex yourself!” – in the face of which none of us has a choice’ (Wilchins, 1997, 57). Whereas Bornstein portrays the transgendered as totemic shaman figures who, in the exhibition of their own ambiguous bodies, open the way to new conceptualizations of gender, Wilchins envisages an escape from the constrictions of the sex/gender system as a more complicated and tortuous process. In her analysis, a transgendered identity is defined much more by reference to separation from others, and what links are established between transgendered subjects are both tenuous and provisional:

Loneliness, and the inability to find partners, is one of the bestkept secrets in the transcommunity. It’s something many of us carry around like a private shame, a secret wound we hide from view. This is because we are convinced the isolation only confirms our deepest fears – that we are somehow deficient. It should remind us, instead, once again, that the personal is political.  The gender system, which marks many kinds of bodies as either nonerotic or erotically problematic, is at work in the most intimate spaces of our lives. We fall off the grid of erotic intelligibility which sections the body into known, recognizable parts. Transbodies are the cracks in the gender sidewalk. When we find partners, they must be willing to negotiate the ambiguity of the terrain. (Wilchins, 1997, 120)

Wilchins‘s reiteration of the feminist slogan `the personal is political’ is significant here. Gender Outlaw ends with a monologue entitled `The Seven Year Itch’, which concludes with a vision of the transsexual subject sloughing off a succession of identities in order to become `the one the dictionary has trouble naming’:

Get your last looks now, ’cause I’m changing already And by the time the next seven years have come and gone I’m gonna be new all over again. (Bornstein, 1994, 238)

Bornstein‘s concern here is with cultural classification, metamorphosis and performance: in contrast, Read My Lips concludes with a `selected chronology’ of significant events in the history of transsexual activism. In these very different conclusions are foregrounded both the differences and similarities between Bornstein and Wilchins. Bornstein is a performer, her text grounded in the acting out of a transgendered identity which does not seek to reconcile its disparate parts into a unified whole, and which lays far more stress on the `personal’ side of `the personal is political’ equation. Wilchins‘s intentions, however, are more explicitly political, as one would expect from one of the founders of the activist organizations Transexual Menace and GenderPAC, a conclusion backed up by her claim that `everything I’ve been saying has an explicit political agenda to it: I am absolutely trying to use language and knowledge to subvert certain ideas about bodies, gender and desire’ (Wilchins, 1997, 194).

In her text, Wilchins seems torn between the desire to formulate some kind of cohesive identity for trans people – arguing, for example, that `if you’re engaged in an activist struggle, you’d better look very closely at the identity you’re choosing to mobilize around’ (Wilchins, 1997, 186) – and an awareness that it is both impossible and inadvisable to do so. Indeed, her vision of `a third force, another kind of politics’, which is not grounded in an appeal to a unified identity, is distinctly reminiscent of Bornstein‘s concept of the `third space’.

Will a movement without identities be messy? Yes, as messy and multilayered as we actually are. Won’t a political movement lacking a unified subject have contradictions and discord? Of course. But as Judith Butler suggested, maybe it’s time to stop sacrificing the complexity of our lives at the altar of unified identity, to acknowledge our contradictions and take political action with all of them intact. Unity is a product of encouraging diversity, not of reinforcing its absence.
Our contradictions and differences are more than political obstacles: they are reminders of our boundlessness, confirmations that we can never be fully captured or circumscribed, that no label or movement can ever hope to encompass all we are or hope to be. And that diversity is our strength in the face of the familiar, tyrannical Western project to impose the monolithic, allenveloping truths that marginalized, suppressed, and erased us in the first place. (Wilchins, 1997, 199)

The contradictions within Wilchins‘s argument – with which she is very consciously struggling throughout her text – is indicative of both the problems and the possibilities presented by the attempt to formulate a transgender identity. After all, `transgender’ itself is an amorphous term, and any body of theory has to define the kind of `body’ from which it arises: a difficult task, given the multiplicity of different possibilities and permutations which arise from the overturning of dualistic conceptions of gender. The view that the ‘contradictions and differences’ of transgendered identity are envisaged at once as `political obstacles’ and as utopian ‘reminders of our boundlessness’ may be a neat paradox, but it’s unclear exactly how – in spite of Wilchins‘s assertion that `a unified national movement to end genderbased oppression is right before us (Wilchins, 1997, 200) – such a conundrum can be resolved.

It is this which many feminists see as an insurmountable problem to an acceptance of a transgender politics: in particular, an essentialist feminism associated particularly with the second wave which is concerned with establishing a firm definition of `woman’ on which to base an activist politics. From such a standpoint, ‘gender’ does not unproblematically elide into `transgender’. On the contrary, from such a perspective any ideology which blurs gender boundaries is profoundly threatening, and therefore it is perhaps not surprising that one of the common themes linking all three of the transgender texts discussed here is the voicing of the authors’ concern regarding their relationship with feminism. Sandy Stone‘s reference to ‘Empire’ in The Empire Strikes Back is to Janice G. Raymond‘s contentious work The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the SheMale, which not only exemplifies the hardline feminist reaction to transgenderism, but also included a personal attack upon Stone herself. Raymond‘s book was originally published in 1979, and is outright in its condemnation of male to female transsexuals who wish to identify themselves with feminist aims and objectives. Raymond argues that ‘the transsexually constructed lesbianfeminist may have renounced femininity but not masculinity and masculinist behaviour (despite deceptive appearances)’ (Raymond, 1994, 101). In other words, once a man, always a man, regardless of surgery or any sense of identity which argues to the contrary: instead, ‘the transsexually constructed lesbianfeminist is the man who indeed gets to be “the man” in an exclusive women’s club to which he would otherwise have no access’ (Raymond, 1994, 111).

A revised edition of The Transsexual Empire, published in 1994, demonstrated Raymond standing by the ideas she had first posed fifteen years before. In a new introduction, she reiterates her view that transsexualism is `largely a male phenomenon’ (Raymond, 1994, xiii), ‘the invention of men initially developed for men’ (Raymond, 1994, xiv). In seeking to transform themselves through surgery, male-to-female transsexuals merely perpetuate the patriarchal assumption that women’s bodies can be owned and controlled. Raymond has little patience with postmodernist theories regarding performativity, arguing that, far from revealing gender as being acted out upon the body, surgically constructed transsexuals `are not simply acting, nor are they text, or genre . . . They purport to be the real thing’ (Raymond, 1994, xxiii). Moreover, transgenderism is condemned for ‘encourag[ing] a style rather than a politics of resistance, in which an expressive individualism has taken the place of collective political challenges to power… men and women mixing and matching but not moving beyond both’ (Raymond, 1994, xxxiv-xxxv).

Nor is Raymond alone in her opinion that the transsexual identification with feminism is problematic. Giving the lie to Sandy Stone‘s assertion that The Transsexual Empire represented `a specific moment in feminist analysis’ (Stone, 1992, 283), as recently as 1999 Germaine Greer published The Whole Woman, in which, in a chapter provocatively entitled `Pantomime Dames’, she attacks the transsexual phenomenon in terms which echo Raymond’s. She regards  transsexualism as symbolizing an insidious attempt to infiltrate the feminist movement, appropriating it from within. Her conclusion is that, when the transsexual `forces his way into the few private spaces women may enjoy and shouts down their objections, and bombards the women who will not accept him with threats and hate mail, he does as rapists have always done’ (Greer, 1999, 74).

One of the most common narrative tropes of transgender narratives, therefore, is the experience of exclusion from feminist- particularly lesbianfeminist – networks. Indeed, Bernstein comes to the conclusion that

[a]ny revolution in deconstructing gender should look for no support among communities of people whose identities depend on the existence of . . . [a] bipolar gender system. This would include, but most certainly is not limited to, the fundamentalist right wing, purists in the lesbian and gay male communities who believe in the ultimate goal of assimilation into the dominant culture, and some cultural or radical feminists. (Bernstein, 1994, 132)

Riki Anne Wilchins relates the story of attempting to infiltrate the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which had instituted `a policy of “womynborn womyn only” ‘ (Wilchins, 1997, 109). Although this episode ends in triumph, with the women at the festival voicing support for the transgender cause, Wilchins nevertheless gives bitter voice to an extended policy of exclusion on the part of the lesbian feminist movement.

I knew the name for what I was, and I knew I belonged with other lesbians. But the women’s community greeted us less like prodigal sisters returned to the fold than like the unchanged kitty litter. Following a decade of fruitless efforts to claim my place in the lesbian movement and sick of being harassed at parties, in bars, and in groups, I left for good. (Wilchins 1997, 111)

Such wavering between isolation and collectivism is, it seems, a common characteristic of transgendered texts, which struggle to construct a cohesive identity outside the common frame of reference provided by heterosexuality. However, perhaps the plight of the transsexual can be regarded as paradigmatic of the dilemma of the twenty-first-century subject, in which identity is no longer necessarily code-terminate on gender.

Source: Introducing Criticism at the 21st Century by Julian Wolfreys, Edinburgh University Press, 2002.



Categories: Gender Studies

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3 replies


  1. Translation Studies – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes
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  3. Transgender Studies – Literary Theory and Criticism

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