Narratives of Body Transgendering

Richard Ekins

Director of the Trans-Gender Archive, University of Ulster

Dave King

Department of Sociology, University of Liverpool
Gendys Conference, 1998



Drs. Ekins and King
are profilific writers
in this area.
For further details
see our bookshop:
Male femaling,
by Richard Ekins
and as editor with
Dr. Dave King: Blending Genders

A new book
Tales of Transgendering
by Ekins and King
is planned for early 2006

Two years ago at the last Manchester Gender Dysphoria conference we raised the question: "Is the future transgendered?" (Ekins and King, 1996b). In that paper we argued that a shift of some social significance was taking place. In particular, we traced 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. Other writers (e.g. Bolin, 1997; Boswell, 1997; Raymond, 1994) have also commented on this shift in their own particular ways.

As we thought about the various responses to our paper, it struck us that, however important the shift was that we wrote about, it was too early to discern its impact and, also, we felt that there was a danger in suggesting that the newly emerging terminologies and perspectives were somehow superior to the older ones; something that, as social scientists, we are keen to avoid. An ever increasing succession of new titles by major publishers, threatening established ideas of gender, jostle for space on booksellers' shelves, and those who announce themselves as 'gender warriors' or 'gender outlaws' are currently very visible. However, for much of what is increasingly termed the transgendered community, it is very largely a case of 'business as usual', with the older categories of transsexual, transvestite, gay drag, and so on, and the various perspectives that they reflect, still very much in active service.

We have no interest in privileging one particular perspective over another. As Califia writes (1997, p 275): "If the concept of gender freedom is to have any meaning, it must be possible for some of us to cling to our biological sex and the gender we were assigned at birth while others wish to adapt the body to their gender of preference, and still others choose to question the very concept of polarised sexes." Rather, it seems to us that the important task as we approach the new millennium is to document the vast scope of transgender diversity. The countless interviews we have carried out, the life stories we have collected, the published autobiographies and case histories we have read, show a vast range of experiences (Ekins, 1997; Ekins and King, 1996a). Even so, we believe that we may only have begun to uncover the depths of gender diversity, and are currently emphasizing our keenness to collect more stories of transgendering in our attempts to map the increasingly complex worlds of transgender diversity.

Drawing on Plummer's work on sexual stories (1995), we focus in this paper on the various stories that are told of transgendering and particularly the role of the body in that process. Stories come in many forms, but here our concern is with the personal narrative (as is Plummer's). From our own research and that of others we have discerned a number of conceptually distinct contemporary transgendering body stories. Here we group them into four main modes of body transgendering, depending on their relationship to the male/female binary divide. We have termed them: 'migrating', 'oscillating', 'negating' and 'transcending' body stories. We emphasise that whilst transgendering has profound implications for personal identity, and that people will usually come to speak of themselves as being a certain 'kind' of person, in this paper our concern is not primarily with the various types of transgender identity. Rather, we focus on the processes of transgendering and the diverse forms which it takes. In particular, this paper introduces a framework which sensitises us to, and allows us to explore, the full extent and depth of transgender diversity.

Migrating Body Stories

The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1995) defines migrating as 'moving from one place of abode to another, especially in a different country'. In migrating body stories the 'place of abode' is the body and the reference to a different country suggests a move of some considerable significance. Many 'body migrants' speak of starting a new life or of being reborn. Whilst return may be possible, at its inception the 'body journey' is seen as one way; it is not expected that there will be any turning back.

In migrating body stories, people tell of substituting the body features associated with one gender for those associated with the other. Complete substitution (transformation) however is not possible, except in fantasy. Modern medical interventions can accomplish a great deal, but even so, to varying degrees, these stories also tell of concealing unwanted features and implying desired ones.

We can discern three major variations of the migrating body story depending on the nature of the relationship between the 'gendered body' and the 'gendered mind': 'simple- matching migrating', where the migrator seeks to acquire a new body to fit his/her mind, which is thought of as being located in the 'wrong body'; 'coterminous migrating' where, to varying degrees, a new mind and new body emerge simultaneously; and, finally, 'mix- matching migrating', where the new body is sought, but the mind remains of the opposite sex to the new body.

The 'classic' transsexual story is a good example of the 'simple-matching' variation. Following is a recent example from the autobiography of Raymond Thompson (1995): "The first time I was born, it was in a body which was other than male. By some cosmic mistake, as a budding human being I had somehow chosen the wrong body, or the wrong body had chosen me. I am a transsexual person, a man really. It took me more than thirty years to reach a stage where my body started to fit my identity as a man, but now there is no doubt about it. Here I am, well and truly the male that I have always known myself to be."

Coterminous migrating may have the same end result, but here the mind migrates alongside the body. For example, as Maria described her journey from male to female to one of us (Ekins, 1997: 21-2): "As I keep on with this, I find that I'm like stripping away what I have learned in being male. It's like peeling away the layers of an onion . . . I don't know [what is underneath] but I'm finding out . All I can say is that whenever I act the female role, I feel more like myself. It might be that underneath all the layers is a female identity."

A final, and so far little discussed, variant, is where the body migrates from one sex to another (mix-matching migrating), but the mind remains in its original sex. A particularly detailed illustration of this is provided by Consuela Cosmetic in the film 'Mirror, Mirror' (1996). A biological male, Consuela identifies as transsexual, uses self- administered hormone and silicon injections and has extensive cosmetic surgery. She lives with the external body of a woman with a penis, and performs as a woman on stage, with her penis tucked. She works as a she-male prostitute, but always as the man. It is she who penetrates her male partners. Why? 'Hell, I don't want to lie there being ploughed to death . . . I want to do the ploughing!' Consuela keeps her male genitalia to enable her to do this. She is, however, migrating. She accepts the binary divide, and relies on medical and para-medical intervention to cross it. Even though she 'walks that fine line between gender reassignment, "sex change" and "realness" achieved by mirroring gender through performing it' (Alchemy, 1997), there is no doubt she judges her female body by conventional, as opposed to transgressive standards.

Oscillating Body Stories

Whilst migrating body stories for the most part entail a one-way journey, oscillating body stories, in contrast, entail moving to and fro between male and female polarities, across and between the binary divide. The oscillator has a return ticket although the frequency of the journey and the length of stay can vary, depending on the transgenderer's social circumstances and his/her personal project. Some may spend a few hours every week on the other side of the divide; others may only manage the journey every few months but they might be able to stay for a week or more; still others may spend their working day as male and the rest of the time as female. There are oscillators who oscillate (largely in fantasy) minute to minute, even second to second. Some may, like the couples who retire to their favourite holiday destination, eventually decide to buy a one way ticket and migrate.

In this category, substituting - except in fantasy - is mainly, but not entirely, restricted to reversible substitutions and to those which can be hidden. Particularly important is the concealing of unwanted body features and the implying of desired ones. One common oscillating story is that of the male transvestite. Unlike the migrating story, it is rare to find these in published autobiographies (Pepper, 1982, provides one exception). Often found in older medical case reports and occasionally in magazine feature articles, the most detailed stories are found in the newsletters of transvestite organisations such as the Beaumont Society.

Fantasy rapid oscillating body transgendering provides particularly illuminating illustrative material on the complex interrelations between sex, sexuality and gender. John lives and works as a male. At home, he lives with his female partner who sees herself as heterosexual. Before John joins his partner in bed at night, he applies a toner and a hormone bust enlargement cream to his nipples (preparatory substituting). He is not sure that the cream is leading to breast development, but it is making his nipples more sensitive. Occasionally he supplements this regimen with a course of hormone pills that he has acquired from a prostitute he visits. These do lead to breast tissue enlargement and sensitivity (embryonic substituting). He joins his wife in bed. As he touches her body he feels heterosexually aroused and with his penis erect enters his wife. For this period he identifies as a man with a man's body. In due time his wife climaxes. To maintain his erection, he now oscillates into female mode. He disavows his male body and 'his' penis becomes his wife's. He now has his wife's vagina (fantasy substituting). When he climaxes, it is, he feels, a female orgasm. His pre-come is 'her' lubrication. His ejaculatory fluid is his wife's. With intercourse over, his male self slowly re-emerges.

In John's case his body transgendering leads to what he fantasises are female sexual responses. Indeed, his fantasy body transgendering is a pre-condition of sustained sexual arousal and ejaculation. For others, like Peter, gender femaling (i.e. actual cross-dressing) is a precondition of sexual arousal and ejaculation. Peter can only make love with his partner when he is cross-dressed (gender femaling), and although his partner does not encourage Peter's cross-dressing, she goes along with it rather than lose him. Peter identifies as a transvestite with transsexual leanings. He has never had contact with medical professionals. Rather, his exploration of cross-dressing sub-cultures has led him to the view that his 'oscillating' lifestyle is his best compromise. He has no interest in politicising his position, and he keeps as private as possible his transgendering practices and aspirations: an oscillation between the boundaried dual worlds separated by the binary divide.

Negating Body Stories

Of course, migrating and oscillating stories are common knowledge to those attending this conference, and although many and various, the basic processes are well known to us all. However, to do full justice to the diversity of transgender body stories we find it necessary also to introduce what we term 'negating body stories'. Negating has two principal meanings: to nullify, make ineffective, invalidate, destroy; and also, to deny, deny the existence of. Body negators negate in both senses. Those with male bodies seek both to nullify their maleness and deny for themselves the existence of a binary divide. Similarly, but conversely, with female negators. Our research to date has focused on contemporary Western negating, and for this the stories of contemporary male femaling 'sissy maids' are particularly illuminating.

There many different types of 'sissy' stories. As Millie, a self-defined Nancy Maid, puts it (personal communication to RE, 1997): "I always make a sort of distinction between Cissy Maids who like to dress up in Frilly French Maid uniforms and prance around in front of a mirror and Nancy Maids who wear proper domestic uniforms and are put to work as domestic maid servants. I shall be interested to see what your own research produces."

Here, we focus on the writings of Debra Rose who publishes Sissy Maid Quarterly and other publications for sissies and their mistresses. Rose's vision of sissy maids buttresses the essence of the traditional version of the binary male/female divide for all males and females who are not sissies. The world is seen in terms of males and females. It is an entirely heterosexual world. Being male involves being active, virile and - by virtue of maleness - attracted to females; being female involves being attractive to males and finding males attractive because of their virility. However, Rose's view of the binary divide is given the modern twist that recognises that women are increasingly successful in the world of work and, in consequence are ill-suited - and, in any event, have no time - for housework and the traditional role of the housewife. It is here that sissy maids come into their own. They are ineffectual males quite unable to compete for a female's affections in the conventional way. Rather, they are best fitted to take on the role of the housemaid and do the work previously done by the traditional housewife, and before that, by the various maids in service. To be best fitted for this role, their already weak maleness must be systematically expunged (negated). To effect this, the maid must be 'trained' - most usually, by a training mistress, prior to service; or, less frequently, the training will occur in-service. Alternatively, the trainee may be sent to a Training Academy.While the details of the training vary, the sine qua non of all of them is systematic negating. There is much concealing (of attributes of masculinity). There is much redefining (sissies dress in effeminate and feminine attire NOT in order to cross the binary divide, but to further their emasculating). Such substituting and implying as there is, is co-opted in the service of negating. The following is a typical trajectory.

Phase 1 - Initial body negating: the sissy's body will be stripped of his body hair, including his pubic hair, giving him a pre-pubescent look. He will be made to wear a gaff 'to exhibit the smooth, girlish appearance one expects from a sissy' (Rose, 1994: 36).

Phase 2 - Initial gender negating: his male body image now negated, the sissy must wear gender neutral attire. To negate masculinity, these clothes will be variously effeminate or feminine. In particular, his now shaven body will be introduced to feminine and sensual fabrics designed to give him sensual pleasure (re-direction of sexuality to himself - solitary narcissism). The clothes are designed to negate his masculinity, NOT to create a sense of himself as a woman, as in oscillation.

Phase 3 - Becoming a maid: the sissy will now be issued with clothing - a maid's uniform designed to cement his role as a maid in service to his mistress. Not only is he being increasingly neutered, but his passivity and subservience is being reinforced. He will be initiated into the tasks of keeping house: cleaning, polishing and cooking, and taking care of his mistress's personal wardrobe and boudoir.

Phase 4 - Negating sexuality: the sissy's tightly fitted gaff will make erections impossible. However, the sissy will be permitted to masturbate when in his bed alone at night (re-direction of sexuality). His single-bed will be fitted with (preferably pink) rubber sheets. They are easy to clean, a constant reminder of his sissiness, and are fitted with the intended outcome that eventually the sissy will, in effect, be having a sexual relationship with his sheets, as in: 'I always get "in the mood" by rubbing myself against my rubber bottom sheet. Although I sometimes think of my cute gym instructor when I do it, more and more I don't really think of anyone at all. Rather than think about a girl, I like to concentrate on how great the slick, wet rubber sheet feels!' (Rose, 1993: 42.)

Phase 5 - Mistress's little helper: with all semblance of masculinity fast evaporating, the sissy now gains pleasure from being the 'perfect little helper'. 'My world is now a gentle, soft, and scented one in which my duties are perfectly and strictly defined. And I am proud of my growing abilities as a cook, seamstress, housekeeper, and personal maid-servant. The approval of my mistress means much to me now, and I bask in any small compliment or favour she bestows upon me' (Sissie Jennie, 1994: 21).

Phase 6 - Vicarious living: with his sexuality re-directed and his initiation into worlds of female sex, sexuality and gender maximised by his personal relationship with his mistress, the sissy is now prepared for a life which is lived vicariously through his mistress. He becomes privy to the intimacies of her relationships and will eventually act as a maid to her boyfriends, and later her husband.

Phase 7 - Consolidating negating: with constant gaffing, the re-direction of sexuality, and reduced libido, the sissy's sexuality becomes increasingly diffused over his entire body. The pleasure he obtains from serving his mistress, living vicariously through her and feeling the fit and texture of his feminine clothing come to compensate for, and, indeed, be preferred to, any lingering regrets at his lost masculinity. In due course, he may cease to masturbate. He becomes an increasingly asexual 'neither male nor female' maid in service.

Transcending Body Stories

Whilst the three modes discussed so far may break the commonsense rules of gender, they do not (explicitly, at least) question the system of rules itself. In recent years there have emerged a number of stories which are, in Stone's (1991: 295) words, 'disruptive to the accepted discourses of gender'. In this section we focus on these stories under the general title of 'transcending body stories'. In these stories, the whole process of transgendering is radically redefined by rendering problematic the binary gender divide. Whilst the body may be transgendered by means of substituting, concealing and implying as in the other modes, the meaning of this is fundamentally redefined.

The style of the transcending story is very different from the other three. Transcending body stories are not chronological personal narratives. The cover 'blurb' for perhaps the best known transcending story, Kate Bornstein's Gender Outlaw (1994), describes it as 'a manifesto, a memoir and a performance all rolled into one'. In fact the memoirs are principally used as a vehicle to make questionable our commonsense assumptions about what it means to be a man or a woman. In a similar way Feinberg's (1996) Transgender Warriors and Wilchin's (1997) Read My Lips mix together personal experiences with current gender theories and transgender politics.

One assumption which is questioned is that there are only two (opposite) genders. Instead, it is suggested that there is the possibility of a 'third' space outside the gender dichotomy. Gender in this story becomes something which is much more complex than a dichotomy, a series of categories, or a continuum. Boswell (1997: 54) argues that the notion of transgender, 'refers to the transgressing of gender norms, or being freely gendered, or transcending gender altogether in order to become more fully human'. This idea is graphically illustrated in the following statement from an internet mailing list called 'Sphere': 'We take our name from the idea that gender isn't a dichotomy (where there's either male or female) or a continuum (where there's a rainbow of stuff in between, all in a line and all related to male or female) but a sphere, where male and female are just two of an infinite number of possible points and you can be anywhere on, inside, or outside, the gendered world.'(Sphere, http://www.mills. edu/PEOPLE/ug.pages/danica.public.html /gender fuck.html)

Secondly, transcending stories question the permanence of gender and acknowledge that transgendering has taken place. To the extent that the transvestite or transsexual passes as a person of the other gender, and to the extent that their transgendering remains hidden, the 'fact' of two invariant genders remains unquestioned. As Stone (1991: 295) puts it, 'authentic experience is replaced by a particular kind of story, one that supports the old constructed positions.' Currently, some members of the transgender community are questioning 'the necessity of passing for typically gendered people.' For some people, 'the experience of crossed or transposed gender is a strong part of their gender identity; being out of the closet is part of that expression' (Nataf, 1996: 16).

However, given the radical view of gender, questioning the permanence of it is more than just coming 'out of the closet'. Kate Bornstein (1994), for instance, advocates 'gender fluidity', which 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. Gender fluidity recognises no borders or rules of gender' (Bornstein, 1994: 52). There is an element of impermanence here similar to that in oscillating stories although oscillating is not an appropriate term because it implies a movement between two given points which transcending body stories question.

The critique of the binary gender divide and the ideas of gender fluidity and impermanence would seem to rule out surgical and hormonal substituting because of their permanent and binary nature. Bornstein does indeed argue that the demand for surgery is largely a result of the 'cultural genital imperative' (1994: 119), although she does not advocate the withdrawal of surgical facilities. What transcending stories do involve is a radical redefinition of the meaning of surgical and hormonal substitution and the role of the medical profession in this. In migrating stories, a 'pathological state' (gender dysphoria) is dealt with by means of a medically assisted and controlled migration across the gender divide. Transcending body stories question the idea of pathology in a manner analogous to the way in which gays challenged the disease status of homosexuality. Also called into question then is the medical profession's control over access to surgery. If surgery is part of a treatment for a disease then it makes sense for doctors to diagnose the disease and prescribe the treatment. If there is no disease then genital surgery and other body gender alterations may be a matter of personal choice. As Califia (1996: 224) puts it, 'transsexuals are becoming informed consumers of medical service'. She draws a parallel with the S/M view on body modification writing of the 'individual's right to own his or her own body, and make whatever temporary or permanent changes to that body the individual pleases . . . A new sort of transgendered person has emerged, one who approaches sex reassignment with the same mindset that they would obtaining a piercing or a tattoo'.

A recent variant of the transcending story is being told by those people born with intersexed bodies. As Fausto-Sterling (1993) states, 'Hermaphrodites have unruly bodies. They do not fall naturally into a binary classification; only a surgical shoehorn can put them there'. And this is exactly what has happened: during this century, intersexed bodies have been surgically and hormonally fitted into one or the other gender category. Now, some people with intersexed bodies who were neither aware nor able to control such surgical and hormonal intervention, are questioning those practices and demanding the right to determine whether, when and how their bodies should be altered.

Conclusions and Implications

In this paper we have begun to classify the vast range of contemporary transgendering body stories (personal narratives) with particular reference to the binary male/female divide. However, even at the level of the personal narrative, much work remains to be done. We have introduced major variants within each type of body transgendering story. Many variants have been ignored, however, and some, only touched upon.

Intersex stories, for instance, are stories that promise to be of increasing significance, both personally and politically. Oscillating stories tend to be less fully documented and researched than migrating ones. Sissy maid stories are by no means the only negating tales. Transcending stories of intimate detail are rare indeed. What other neglected transgendering tales are waiting to be told?


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Citation:Ekins, R., King, D., (1998) Narratives of Body Transgendering, GENDYS '98, The Fifth International Gender Dysphoria Conference, Manchester England.
Web page copyright GENDYS Network. Text copyright of the author. Last amended 16.02.05