Is the Future Transgendered?
Dr Richard Ekins
PhD., Director, The Trans-Gender Archive, University of Ulster. Senior Lecturer in Social Psychology, University of Ulster, Trustee Gender Trust, Belfast Butterfly Club
Dr Dave King
PhD., Department of Sociology, The University of Liverpool. GT Associate Member.
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The 1990's have seen a new arena of academic enquiry emerging in the Universities that of transgender studies (Ekins and King, 1996). In this paper we review the contributions of social scientists and other commentators to the new field of study. We have divided the contributions into five separable research areas. These include the experiences of those who transgender in some way; the social organisation of those experiences; the way they are dealt with by the medical profession and the mass media; and the political implications of transgendering itself. We look at some of the indications that, in each of these areas, a shift of some social significance is taking place. In particular, we trace a shift from the idea of moving across (transferring) from one pre-existing gender category to the other (either temporarily or permanently), to the idea of transcending or living 'beyond gender' altogether. The shift is hardest to discern in the more conservative areas of the medicalisation of transgendering and its treatment by the mass media. It is most obvious in the radical political and cultural literature. The status of the shift is, perhaps most problematic in the areas of 'experiencing' and social organisation.
1. Experiencing Transgendering.
Before transgendering became medicalised in the latter half of the nineteenth century, people were able to write publicly of the enjoyment they experienced in cross-dressing and cross-gender 'masquerades' (Farrer, 1987; 1994). Medicalisation, however, brought with it new 'conditions' and the emergence of new identities. Increasingly, transgendering experiences and behaviours were made sense of in terms of the categories of 'science', most notably those of the 'transvestite' and the 'transsexual' (Ekins, 1993; King, 1993).
The behaviour and emotions involved in transgendering are typically experienced as confusing and often distressing, at least initially. Therefore, being able to adopt an identity that makes sense of things 'finding oneself' as it is sometimes put can be immensely liberating. In discussion with transvestites and transsexuals as well as in published (e.g. Fallowell and Ashley, 1982) and unpublished autobiographies, one can discern a number of features of these identities.
Whilst transvestite and transsexual identities involve some degree of transgendering, they only make sense in relation to the conventional gender dichotomy. So male transvestites may speak of expressing their 'feminine' self and male to female transsexuals may see their quest for surgery as bringing their bodies into line with their gender identity as women.
These identities are also covert identities. They are a way of making sense of the transgendering experience; they do not represent a 'third gender' category. The male transsexual and the male transvestite seek to pass in public as 'women' not to be read as a transsexual or transvestite.
However, in the mid 1990's, it appears that more people are experiencing transgendering in new ways and are devising new forms of identity. In contrast to the transsexual and transvestite identities, what is increasingly seen as the 'transgender identity' breaks down the gender dichotomy by mixing and matching its characteristics in various combinations. It is also a more 'open' identity insofar as transgenderists may be perceived as neither men nor women. Such a position openly challenges "the necessity of passing for typically gendered people" (Nataf, 1996, 16)
Pursued further, the idea of permanent core identities and the idea of gender itself disappear. The emphasis today, at least in some of the literature, is on transience, fluidity and performance. Kate Bornstein, for instance, talks about "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). In that gender fluidity recognises no borders or 'laws' of gender, the claim is to live 'outside of gender' (Whittle, 1996; see also Devor, 1987): as 'gender outlaws'. Whether this can be sustained remains to be seen.
It is in this respect that some writers use the concept of the 'third sex' or 'third gender'. This idea refers not simply to the addition of another category, but it is conceived as "a space for society to articulate and make sense of all its various gendered identities" (Nataf, 1996: 57) or, as Herdt puts it, "the third is emblematic of other possible combinations that transcend dimorphism" (Herdt, 1994: 20).
2. The Social Organisation of Transgendering.
The men who wrote to various publications about their experiences of wearing female clothing in the later years of last century and the early years of this (see Farrer, 1987; 1994), appear, in the main, to have pursued their activities in isolation from other men who were similarly engaged. Medicalisation, however, provided an identity category through which people could link themselves to others. There is some evidence that in the early years of this century a number of informal networks of cross-dressers were emerging, although it was not until the 1960's that these became more formalised and extensive (King, 1993: chapter five).
During the last three decades, a number of organisations in many countries of the world have sprung up and flourished (or, in some cases, withered and died). Organisations such as the British Beaumont Society and the Gender Trust provide safe and supportive settings in which experiencing transgendering can be explored, as well as seeking to generally promote awareness of such experiences. This type of organisation continues to exist, but during the 1990's commentators have drawn attention to a number of significant developments.
Firstly, the emergence of a greater diversity of transgendered people not conforming simply to transvestite/ transsexual patterns has led to the creation of a plethora of groups catering for the diversity (Whittle, 1996; see also Bolin, 1994). There are now, for instance, public venues catering specifically for 'Boys, Girls and Inbetweenies', as a favourite catch phrase at London's Way Out Club puts it (Ekins, 1997: 104-6)
Secondly, at the same time as there is an acknowledgement of diversity, there also appears to be developing a greater sense of unity. So writers now comment on the 'transgender community' and this is sometimes seen to extend into the gay community (see Mackenzie, 1994; Whittle, 1996).
A third development is the greater involvement of transgendered people in gender and sexual politics both in theory and in practice. Formerly, the influence of such writers as Janice Raymond effectively silenced transgendered people. For many years transgenderism was seen as politically incorrect. This has become increasingly less so in recent years, as is made clear by such journals as Radical Deviance - A Journal of Transgendered Politics. Indeed, transgenderism is now seen by many transgendered groupings to be at the very cutting edge of debates about sex, sexuality and gender.
Finally, as we discuss below, new forms of communication such as the Internet are opening up interesting future possibilities for the social organisation of trans-gendering.
3. The Medicalisation of Transgendering.
The innocence with which the men discussed by Peter Farrer (1987; 1994) pursued their activities, is now no longer possible. Medicine has provided us with a language through which the activities of such men are apprehended as pathologies that can be diagnosed, treated and, perhaps ultimately prevented.
The bedrock upon which the history of medical intervention in this area is built is of course the assumption of two separate genders with their appropriate modes of dress, behaviour and so on. Some medical practitioners regarded any attempt to transgress the boundary between the two gender categories adversely (even with horror) and advocated various physical and psychological methods directed at retaining the patient in their original category. Others advocated methods to reduce their patient's anxieties about transgendering and were prepared to facilitate, in what they regarded as suitable cases, a transition from one category to another. Both approaches can be regarded as seeking to restore harmony in a situation of discord. Both are, in different ways (and this is also true of the patients who seek out the practitioners of these approaches), seeking to ensure that identity, social category and biology 'match'. The end result is that the binary structure of gender is maintained.
In what ways has medical practice changed during the 1980's and into the 1990's? Some of the changes may, with hindsight, be traced back to the introduction of the term 'gender dysphoria' in the early 1970's. Whereas transvestism and transsexualism named discrete conditions, gender dysphoria denotes merely a symptom that can vary in degree and kind. It removes clear barriers between different sufferers and, indeed, between sufferers and non-sufferers, since, in some formulations, we all fit somewhere on the continuum. In short as Bockting and Coleman put it, "Today, more clinicians recognise that gender dysphoria is far more complex than previously assumed" (1992: 133).
Such complexity was obscured in part by the rules used by medical practitioners to select those seen as suitable candidates for surgery. Transsexuals had to be separated out from transvestites and homosexuals and then had to conform to conventional gender expectations in terms of dress, sexual preferences and so on. One of the results of this was that everyone came to tell a similar story and the real diversity of the transgender experience was buried (Billings and Urban, 1996; Nataf, 1996)
However, Bolin (1994) argues that in America the emergence of a transgender category was facilitated by a reduction in the number of university-affiliated gender clinics in the 1980's. This, she argues, left a smaller number of clinics mostly non university-affiliated, 'client-centred' clinics that contributed to "greater flexibility in the expression of gender identities" (p. 463).
This apparent shift in power may perhaps be reflected in Bockting and Coleman's use of the term "gender dysphoric client" rather than patient. Such clients they claim "often have a more ambiguous gender identity and are more ambivalent about a gender role transition than they initially admit" (1992: 143). Their treatment program, they say, allows their clients to "discover and express their unique identity" (1992: 143) and "allows for individuals to identify as neither man nor woman, but as someone whose identity transcends the culturally sanctioned dichotomy" (1992a: 144).
A similar picture is discernible in the medical approach to intersexual conditions. Such patients had to be one sex or the other, they could not remain in between. As Bornstein (1994, 57) puts it "we don't allow hermaphrodites in modern Western medicine. We 'fix' them." Fausto-Sterling (1993) suggests that maybe we should accept what she calls 'sexual multiplicity' instead of shoehorning people into one or other of the two available sexes. Indeed, we know of at least one group of intersexual people who are now campaigning for just that (The Intersex Society of North America).
4. Transgendering and the Media.
Transgressing the boundaries between the categories of male and female, in whatever way, has attracted the attention of the mass media for at least the past 150 years or so. We are all familiar with the sex-change exposés that have appeared regularly in the press since the 1940's, and with the magazine feature articles and television documentaries on cross-dressing not to mention the many films that have dealt with the topic. The conceptions of cross-dressing and sex-changing held by the general public, the largest part of the medical profession, and many of those who themselves cross-dress and sex-change, are almost certainly framed less by the medical literature than by the mass media.
Although media content does not simply repeat medical conceptions or those of transvestites and transsexuals themselves, neither has it strayed too far from the ideas of conditions and identities that we discussed above. The popular media has usually operated with a traditional view of gender and gender roles. Various critics (Billings and Urban, 1996; Birrell and Cole, 1990; Raymond, 1980) have argued that one of the wider consequences of the media dissemination of current conceptions of gender dysphoria (and responses to them) is that, by affirming the link between sex and gender, they thereby reinforce an oppressive gender system. In a similar vein, Garber (1992) argues, with regard to the discussion of the motives of Billy Tipton, that "such normalisation reinstates the binary (male/female)" and "recuperates social and sexual norms" (Garber, 1992: 69).
It is not possible to disagree: behind all the various press, television and radio reports of cross-dressing and sex-changing and informing all the novels, films and stage plays that deal with these themes, there is a necessary backdrop a system of two gender categories, based on sex and distinguished by 'appropriate' dress, mannerisms and many other characteristics. The 'self-evidence' of this system is what gives the media content any point at all. Only on this basis can the producer and consumer make sense of it though, it must be said that this is true of all media content and not only that fraction dealing with transgendering.
In the light of the general changes that we are considering in this paper, what changes, if any, can be discerned in the media? What may now, perhaps, be thought of as the traditional mass media, the press and television in particular, continue to present us with personal stories and scandals much as they have done since the 1940's. Alongside this, though, are occasional new themes. Thus a recent British documentary looked at the idea of a 'third sex' (QED, BBC1, 28th March, 1995). The press and television, in the form of teletext, have also now provided us with 'contact services' and transgendered people are to be easily found there.
The telephone has also taken on new roles in the late 1980's and 1990's and, with the development of 'chat lines', provides new methods of contact for the transgendered. Pre-recorded material may be accessed giving medical advice and other information as well as erotic scripts with transgendered themes (Ekins, 1996).
Another important recent development is the use of the Internet by transgendered individuals and groups. Transgender web pages offer shopping opportunities and (like the traditional media) access to pornography information and entertainment. More importantly, perhaps, they offer a means of quickly disseminating ideas and information democratically to a massive, global audience. Some web sites reflect the changes that concern us in this paper. For example one site is entitled Gender 3; Devoted to Ending the 2 Sex System reflecting the 'third sex' theme we have commented on. Transgender Forum and Gay, Bisexual, Lesbian and Transgender Info point to the breaking down of boundaries between different groups and the acceptance of diversity.
5. Transgendering and Gender Politics.
Until the late 1960's, to write of the political aspects of transgendering would have made little sense. However, with the second wave of feminism and a new focus on the myriad dimensions of gender, it became possible to conceive of ways in which the apparently private practices of cross-dressing and sex-changing could have political significance.
A few writers in the early 1970's argued that transsexuals and transvestites shared the oppression experienced by gay men, lesbians and women, and could be perceived as gender revolutionaries (e.g. Brake, 1976 ), but by the end of the 1970's, as we noted earlier, the prevailing view was that cross-dressing and sex-changing were not politically correct and anything but revolutionary.
Janice Raymond (1980; 1994) is the best known exponent of these views. She argues that transsexuals are among the victims of patriarchal society and its definitions of masculinity and femininity. The creation of transsexualism and its treatment by means of sex change surgery obscures the political and social sources of the 'transsexuals' suffering. Instead it is conceptualised as an individual problem for which an individual solution is devised; the 'real' problem - patriarchy - remains unaddressed. Moreover, she sees transsexualism as part of a masculine attempt to undermine feminism. "Transsexualism," she writes, "constitutes a socio-political program that is undercutting the movement to eradicate sex role stereotyping and oppression in this culture." (1980: 5).
For many years, views such as these were sometimes used to legitimate violence towards transsexuals and effectively silenced the production of any dissenting views within academia.
In contrast, crossing the gender border is now seen by some as subversive, transgressive. Recently Garber (1992: 17), for example, has argued that "transvestism is a space of possibility structuring and confounding culture: the disruptive element that intervenes, not just a category crisis of male and female, but a crisis of category itself." Similarly, Anne Bolin (1994: 485) argues that the transgenderist "harbours great potential to deactivate gender or to create in the future the possibility of 'supernumerary' genders as social categories no longer based on biology." This is because of its "decoupling of physiological sex, gender identity and sexuality." (1994: 483).
Transgenderism has achieved a position of prominence in a number of recent contributions to cultural studies and in what has come to be known as 'queer theory'. This, according to Segal (1994: 188) "seeks to transcend and erode the central binary divisions of male/female, heterosexual/homosexual in the construction of modern sexualities."
The above writers have all been commenting on the 'political correctness' or otherwise of transgender phenomena. Perhaps more important however is that in the writings and doings of transgendered people themselves there is evidence of a greater political consciousness. As Nataf (1996: 42) puts it: "Transgender politics is raising the consciousness of transsexuals and other gender-challenged people, helping us to find pride and solidarity and so to heal the trauma of growing up transgendered in a culture that stigmatises and pathologises that experience."
This rise in political consciousness is also linked to some of the other changes that we have discussed above, particularly the broader nature of the transgender community and the development of new forms of communication such as the internet.
It is almost half a century since we were introduced to the idea of transsexualism. That idea led to what the historian of science, Thomas Kuhn (1962) would have called a scientific revolution; that is, we moved into a new paradigm or way of looking at the world of transgendering. The question we raise in this paper is whether we are experiencing another paradigm shift now. Some transgendered activists have no doubt that we are. As Denny (1995: 1) puts it; "With the new way of looking at things, suddenly all sorts of options have opened up for transgendered people: living full-time without genital surgery, recreating in one gender role while working in another, identifying as neither gender, or both, blending characteristics of different genders in new and creative ways, identifying as genders and sexes heretofore undreamed of even designer genitals do not seem beyond reason."
It remains to be seen to what extent these are realistic options for any but a vocal and avant-garde minority.
We are grateful for the help of Wendy Saunderson in the preparation of this paper.
Citation: Ekins, R., King, D., (1996),Is the Future Transgendered? GENDYS '96, The Fourth International Gender Dysphoria Conference, Manchester England.
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