Gender Migration And Citizenship

Dr Dave King

Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Liverpool

Dr. Richard Ekins

Reader in Cultural and Media Studies, Transgender Archive, University of Ulster at Coleraine
Gendys Conference, 2004

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


Various global processes have brought about what Castles and Miller (1998) call 'The Age of Migration'. Over the past fifty or so years the rapid growth in geographical migration linked to processes of globalisation have rendered clear notions of citizenship, national identity and belonging problematic (Castles and Davidson, 2000). We are also in the age of gender migration. The last half of the twentieth century saw the development and utilisation of medical technologies which have facilitated gender migration and have accordingly raised questions about gender identity and belonging.

Geographical migration has of course been studied mainly by geographers, social demographers, historians and the like. Gender migration was first studied by the medical profession and that perspective is still the dominant one. But as sociologists studying this area, we have always had a problem using terms such as transsexualism or gender dysphoria because they do not enable us to develop a particularly sociological angle on what is going on. What we see as sociologists are not transsexuals or people suffering from gender dysphoria. We see people who have lived part of their lives as men living as women or vice versa.

So from a sociological point of view, gender migration therefore seems a more appropriate term for what is going on: it focuses attention on what is happening socially - the movement from one social position to another; and it provides a framework within which we can examine the ways in which gender borders are policed and gender citizenship is granted or denied.

Transexualism and gender dysphoria focus the attention on the patient - obviously the appropriate focus for health professionals - but the sociologist is interested in a much broader range of people including the health professionals themselves who, in 'manning' the border crossings, play a crucial role in controlling the flow of gender migration.

The concept of gender migration also chimes in with the experiences of many of those who have undergone the process. The idea of undergoing a journey or of crossing borders is a popular theme in many gender migrants' auto/biographies. For example, 'April Ashley's Odyssey' (Fallowell and Ashley, 1982), 'Crossing: a Memoir' (McCloskey, 1999), 'What took you so long: a Girl's Journey to Manhood' (Thompson and Sewell, 1995).


In modern times, particularly, emigration and (especially) immigration have been regulated in some way by most nation states. People have not been free to wander and settle where they will; the number and types of people allowed in to a country has usually been closely regulated. For those who are allowed in to stay, there is the question of citizenship and social acceptance, of who will be allowed and under what conditions to become, formally and informally, a member of the host society.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1995) defines migrating as 'moving from one place of abode to another especially in a different country'. This brief definition really only hints at what is involved and we want to draw attention to some aspects in a little more detail.

The reference to a different country hints at the fact that migration involves the crossing of a boundary or border. Borders signify that there is a difference of some importance between what lies on either side and crossing it will usually be controlled in some way. Also, particularly in popular culture, gender relations are sometimes depicted in terms that suggest that men and women do inhabit different countries even different planets - the 'women are from Venus, men are from Mars' approach. And, without buying into that approach, we can see that many aspects of our lives such as names, clothes, occupations, and physical spaces are organised in a gendered fashion - they are either masculine or feminine. As Connell says 'as men or women we slip our feet into differently shaped shoes, button our shirts on opposite sides, get our heads clipped by different hairdressers, buy our pants in separate shops and take them off in separate toilets' (2002, p. 3).

The reference to 'place of abode' raises the dimension of time. Crossing a border does not constitute migration unless the person crossing remains in the new place for a long period of time, probably permanently. Migration is not the same as going on holiday. Migrants buy a one-way ticket. Whilst return may be possible, at its inception the journey is seen as one way; it is not expected that there will be any turning back.

Migration involves significant social or cultural changes for those involved, nothing less than a life shift of major proportions. So significant is the move involved in migration, in fact, that migrants may speak of starting a new life. In gender migration the idea of being reborn is a common one and attempts may be made to expunge the former identity altogether.

One result of migration is that someone is 'out of place', their right to be where they have arrived is, in some way and by someone, questionable. This raises two interesting areas to investigate; the first is the way in which migration is regulated; the second is the relationship of migrants to members of the 'host' society. In what follows, we will explore some aspects of these issues following an ideal type migratory trajectory through the phases of departure, journey, crossing the border and settlement.

Dreaming of home - living in exile: the transsexual diaspora

If, both formally and informally, the gender migrant is treated as out of place, as somewhere he or she does not belong, gender migrants themselves may, on the contrary, feel that they were out of place before they migrated and that they have at last arrived 'home' where they belong. Another concept from the migration literature therefore suggests itself - that of diaspora. Cohen points out that the concept is complex and has many dimensions but, nevertheless, he does, we think, sum up the core idea when he writes that '. . . one dreamed of home but lived in exile' (1997, p. ix).

Some gender migrants claim that their original gender assignment was a mistake, that in some sense they 'really are' the gender to which they now wish to belong. Countless gender migrant autobiographies tell of exile in the 'wrong' gender role, of dreaming of being home in the 'right' one, of finally arriving home where one belongs. As Thompson (1995, p. 1) puts it: "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."


In this section we first want to emphasise that understanding or explaining gender migration is not the same as understanding or explaining transsexualism and gender dysphoria. Some disciplines may be interested in finding the cause or causes of gender dysphoria but as gender migration refers to relocation in social terms, it will not be explained solely in terms of any initial causes whether biological, psychological or social. In the nineteenth century not all those who suffered poverty or persecution migrated. Not all who experience gender dysphoria in psychiatric terms will migrate; either at all or in the same way and with the same consequences. Conversely, some may manage to migrate in gender terms despite being denied the appropriate medical diagnosis. So our focus is on what facilitates gender migration not what 'causes' gender dysphoria.

Before migration can become a reality for more than a few people, the means by which it can be accomplished need to be developed to a certain degree. The peak immigration years into America were the fifty years straddling the beginning of the 20th century. The hundred or so years before the start of this period had seen the development of more regular, reliable and faster ocean crossings (particularly with the advent of steam power), more regulation of the immigrant trade with a decline in fatalities and less exploitation of immigrants as a result of the establishment of various standards.

In the case of gender migration, the twentieth century saw the development of the medical knowledge and technology which would make it possible to 'change sex' as it is popularly known. The latter half of the twentieth century saw the wider availability of such procedures and the establishment of international guidelines for their use (King, 1993; 1996).

But before new technologies and new facilities can have an impact, their existence and the benefits of using them need to be communicated to those who might do so. Therefore, it is not surprising to find that:

"Emigrant guidebooks, newspaper articles and promotional brochures from railway and steamship companies also spread the word about America as a new promised land" (Chermayeff, Wasserman, and Shapiro, 1991, p 26).

Similarly gender migrants are inspired by the tales of those who have gone before (King, 1993). The following writer, fifty years ago, found in Christine Jorgensen a model for her own life: "By 1951, I knew for certain that I wanted to be a woman . . . Much as I tried I could find none who would help me. I waited and hoped. Two long years later Christine Jorgensen achieved that which I had almost grown to accept as the impossible. She had changed sex. My pitiful little life became no longer liveable in the knowledge that it was possible. Dr Hamburger, to whom I had immediately written, recommended that I should consult Dr . . ."
(unpublished letter written in 1954)

Gender migration is not supposed to happen and when it does it is stigmatised. There is immense pressure to conform to the assigned gender; information about how to actually do it is not easily come by (much more easily today of course than formerly); and some people are socially freer to make use of such information than others.

Nor is the decision to leave an easy one to make. As Fielding (1992, p. 201) points out migration is a major event. It is: "one of those events around which an individual's biography is built. The feelings associated with migration are usually complicated, the decision to migrate is typically difficult to make, and the outcome usually involves mixed emotions. An anticipatory excitement about life in the new place often coexists with anxieties about the move; pleasure at leaving the old place is often disturbed by the feeling that one has almost betrayed those remaining behind."

Or as Chermayeff et al put it: "It (the decision to migrate - DK and RE) was, above all, a courageous decision that meant giving up all that was familiar for an adventure into unknown territory. The prospective immigrant had to be willing to endure the emotional pain of leaving family, friends and home to pursue the hope that life in America would somehow be better." (Chermayeff, Wasserman, and Shapiro, 1991, p. 24)

The decision to leave is no easier for gender migrants. The difficult nature of the decision is illustrated by the following remarks made by a person who made the transition from man to woman in the late 1970s. Some years ago, she spoke to one of us (DK) about the time of her decision to pursue gender reassignment: "I knew there was only one thing I wanted (that is to become a woman - DK). By this time I realised that was all I wanted, either that or to be dead."

And yet she felt as if a fight were going on inside her:

"One side of me was thinking of holding the family together, fighting to be male; but the other side of me knew that this was my last chance, that now was the time."

The Journey - All at Sea

Migrations involve a journey of some kind - a period of travel, a time when the migrant is in transit. The great migrations of the past may have involved many weeks or months of land and sea travel; those of today maybe only a few hours in an aeroplane. Gender migration may or may not involve a geographical journey but the social distance to be travelled - from man to woman or vice versa - is considerable.

On both types of journey, various setbacks may be encountered, obstacles need to be circumvented and some travellers may die on the voyage. Such is the strength of the desire to reach the goal that desperate measures may be adopted:

"A sixteen year old transvestian (sic) girl came to us to have her well-developed breasts amputated . . . We refused to operate because we considered that at the age of sixteen the girl's mental development was not complete. A few days later, the patient was brought to us having lost a great deal of blood; in order to necessitate amputation, she had inflicted upon herself deep and severe cuts with a razor." (Lenz, 1954, p. 463)

Those would-be immigrants who cling beneath cross-border trains would no doubt recognise the strength of feeling that lies behind such actions.

Whether it was before they left Liverpool, on the journey, or after having passed through Ellis Island, American immigrants were vulnerable to exploitation. There were always plenty of people who were willing to take advantage of their desperation to reach their goal; they could be conned into parting with money for forged tickets, for protection, for minding their baggage, etc. and they could be overcharged for basic things like accommodation and food.

Along the way gender migrants, too, are vulnerable to exploitation whether it be the con of expensive breast creams which do not work, cowboy surgeons (Bullough, Bullough, and Elias, 1997, p. 318) or legitimate but expensive services. As the American gender migrant Deirdre McCloskey put it in her recent autobiography: 'Hospitals are the robber barons of modern life . . . extorting from victims called patients' (1999, p. 140).

Not surprisingly many immigrant aid societies were set up to support and help those going through the process; 'the support and personal care they provided brought a modicum of calm to many situations that were fraught with high emotion' (Chermayeff, Wasserman, and Shapiro, 1991, p. 156). Many gender migrants have likewise benefited from the help of various support groups.

Crossing the Border: Ellis Island - Isle of Hope/Isle of Tears

New York's Ellis Island, opened in 1892, was where newly arrived prospective immigrants were inspected to see whether they should be allowed to enter the promised land. It had, like today's Gender Identity Clinics, 'an ambiguous reputation as both a gateway and a barrier' (Chermayeff, Wasserman, and Shapiro, 1991, p. 15). The gender migrant's view of the Gender Identity clinic is similar to the immigrant's view of Ellis Island. It is where the future will be decided, it may be a viewed with hope, a gateway to great happiness but it is also viewed with fear as a possible source of major disappointment - 'what if they send me back?'

The psychiatrists who staff the gender identity clinics function in the same way as the immigration officials on Ellis Island. They too hold the key to the gate which will allow the gender migrant to pass through into the promised land. The procedures to be followed and the criteria, which have to be met to cross the gender border, bear many similarities to those which must be met to cross the national border.

According to Chermayeff, Wasserman, and Shapiro (1991)in order to be allowed to pass through Ellis Island an immigrant had to be physically and mentally healthy, able to work and support themselves, have enough money to prove they weren't a pauper ($25 in 1909) and they were also asked whether they had ever been in jail and if they were an anarchist. The general aim was to exclude anyone who might be a public charge or troublesome in some way.

Some of the criteria applied by those who control the gates at the gender border bear a similarity to those applied on Ellis Island, more so in the past perhaps than now, although physical and mental health seems to be pretty much a standard requirement. But there has also been concern lest the migrant should become a burden on the state e.g. (Randell, 1973, p. 78) and sometimes concern to exclude 'undesirables' - those who had histories of involvement in prostitution or other unacceptable activities such as drug or alcohol abuse.

Ellis Island, incidentally, was only intended for working class immigrants, those who came in steerage. First and second class passengers were subjected to a less rigorous inspection on board ship and did not pass through Ellis Island. Gender migrants, too, have found that with enough money, the more rigorous tests of the Gender Identity Clinics can be circumvented.

Not surprisingly, once the immigrant trade had got underway, many of those arriving at Ellis Island knew what their inspection entailed, what questions they would be asked. They had been informed by friends and relatives who had gone before or by others they encountered on the voyage. Naturally, therefore, they were coached or coached themselves to give the answers they believed would achieve the desired outcome. This is also true of gender migration (Bullough, Bullough, and Elias, 1997, p. 318) and it is equally unsurprising. Some writers have nevertheless seen it as an indication of the pathology of gender migrants and the misguided nature of gender migration as a whole (e.g., Billings and Urban, 1996).

Settlement - Citizenship

In a narrow sense citizenship refers to the membership of a nation state but in a broader sense it is about social inclusion and exclusion, not just about the right to actually exist in a certain space but the right to participate fully in society, to enjoy the same quality of life as others. What factors determine whether or not the migrant will be granted citizenship status? Merely, having completed the migratory journey is not sufficient. We must enquire into what else is required.

Castles and Miller outline three models concerning the approach taken towards immigration and citizenship (1998, p. 244). In the differential exclusionary model 'immigrants are incorporated into certain areas of society . . . but denied access to others' (1998, p. 244). Castles and Davidson employ the term 'quasi-citizen' to refer to a status which is, 'more than that of a foreigner but less than that of a citizen' (2000, p. 94). This has typically been the position of gender migrants in the UK who along with many other groups such as gay men and lesbians have only enjoyed (if that is the right word) 'partial citizenship' (Richardson, 1998), being denied many rights which are taken for granted by non-migrants.

Castles and Miller's second model is the assimilationist one in which 'immigrants are expected to give up their distinctive linguistic, cultural or social characteristics and become indistinguishable from the majority population' (1998, p. 245). In the nineteenth century, having been allowed to enter America, immigrants were encouraged to renounce their heritage and become Americans. Classes were provided to enable them to learn English, to learn about American history and its constitution. Becoming Americanised was a condition of being granted American citizenship but many immigrants or their children also found that changing their name and renouncing their culture was a way of avoiding the stigma attached to being an immigrant.

Again similarities appear with gender migrants. Assimilation is expected; the aim is that no one knows that migration has taken place. Successful passing on a routine basis is probably what most gender migrants hope to achieve. It is also or (at least has been) a (maybe implicit) condition of being allowed to proceed along the migratory journey to surgery. In 1973 John Randell (1973, p. 78) wrote that one of the criteria which had to be met before he recommended someone for surgery was that the patient had to be 'accepted socially, without detection, in the new gender role'. This does not sound too different to the HBIGDA Standards of Care phrase 'the patient functions in the desired gender role'. However, for gender migrants, successful assimilation, whilst necessary to attain quasi-citizenship, may still not be sufficient to gain full citizenship rights as is the legal situation in the UK although with the Gender Recognition Act, 2004, this seems to be changing.

Castles and Miller's third model is the multicultural one in which immigrants are 'granted equal rights in all spheres of society, without being expected to give up their diversity' (1998, p. 248). As they point out, such an approach is often a hotly debated one. Surely with gender migration it is hardly an issue? Surely, when crossing over the gender border, a migrant would be only too happy to leave all behind? Well, that was certainly the case until a few years ago but some writers are now critical of the assimilationist approach as we discuss in the following section. Then there is the question of those gender migrants who cannot be assimilated for some reason. The ability to 'pass' as a member of the 'acquired' gender (as the Gender Recognition Act puts it) has, as noted above, been used as criterion on which to grant access to surgical and other procedures. The implication of adopting a multicultural model is that this would not be the case. In some jurisdictions where a change of legal status is possible, this may depend on the completion of genital surgery. This puts it out of the reach of most born females for whom satisfactory surgery is not yet available. It also excludes born males who do not wish to or who are unable to undergo the surgical removal of the penis and the creation of a vagina. Adopting a multicultural approach would snap or at least weaken the link between the body and legal gender - legal males with vaginas and legal females with penises would be possible. This will be possible under the Gender Recognition Act.

Settlement - Marginality

Being allowed in and being granted citizenship does not however guarantee that one will be accepted by members of the host society. A typical fate of migrants is that they remain in a marginal social position.

It is important to separate out the concept of migration from that of the journey. Migrations certainly involve journeys from one place of abode to another but much more is involved. The tendency, as Benmayor and Skotnes (1994, p. 8) put it, is 'to define migration as a single movement in space and a single moment in time. The focus falls on the act of crossing, or the more or less finite period in which relocation takes place'. In actual fact migration, they point out, 'is a long-term if not life-long process of negotiating identity, difference and the right to fully exist in the new context'.

As Castles and Miller say, migration: 'is hardly ever a simple individual action in which a person decides to move in search of better life-chances, pulls up his or her roots in the place of origin and quickly becomes assimilated in the new country. Much more often migration and settlement is a long-drawn-out process, which will be played out for the rest of the migrant's life.' (Castles and Miller, 1998, p. 19)

Similarly Holly Devor, in her book on female-to-male transsexuals, points out that, like naturalised citizens, transsexuals can never achieve the full acceptance accorded to those whose citizenship is a consequence of their birth;

'. . . with new citizenship, come full rights and obligations, but perhaps not full acceptance by those who were born to their citizenship in the new country . . . With time, most naturalised citizens come to be able to pass undetected among other citizens; but they will always be naturalised citizens, they will never become citizens by birth. In a similar way . . . transsexual people . . . will always remain persons who were not born to their second gender and sex status.' (1997, p. 634)

One dictionary meaning of marginal is to be not central, insignificant. In some of its uses, though, it has a stronger sense of exclusion (Whittle, 1994). In part, the marginal situation may be a product of the stigma attached to the migrant. Unfavourable stereotypes of immigrants and their ways abound and reinforce the idea that migrants are outsiders, not one of us, out of place. Gender migrants as we know are no exception and may be treated as freaks and may suffer a range of responses from ridicule to murder.

There are a number of consequences to this state of exclusion. One is the formation of protective ghettos. This has been most evident in the case of geographical migration but, since the late 1960s, we have seen the rise of the gay community and whilst ghetto may not be quite the right word, it has become possible for gays who wish, to live in a sheltered environment to some degree. Some gender migrants too have come to live in similar protected spaces.

Another consequence is that where it is possible many migrants will 'pass', that is they will hide their migrant status and appear to be an unremarkable member of the host group. Although the literature on immigration to the United States contains plenty of accounts of the efforts of immigrants to keep their home cultures alive, it also contains plenty of accounts of immigrants who changed their names and worked hard to erase any traces of their past. Passing is also what many gender migrants aspire to do. Successful passing is valued by the gender migrant as validation of their identity but it is also usually as McCloskey points out 'prudent . . . a nose job or a facelift or electrolysis that will make a gender crosser passable will also make her less likely to be scorned or raped or killed (1999, p. 163). There has been some criticism of passing in the recent literature on transgender politics (Stone, 1991; Wilchins, 1997) but as Kate Bornstein points out 'I do this because I don't want to get beaten up' (Bornstein, 1994, p. 125).

The literature on marginality also focuses on a different dimension of marginality - the idea of being situated ON the margin of two cultures. One of the earliest examples of this idea in sociology is Robert Park's article, 'Human Migration and the Marginal Man' in which he says 'one of the consequences of migration is to create a situation in which the same individual finds himself striving to live in two diverse cultural groups' (Park, 1928, p. 881). The literature is full of terms like 'between two worlds' (Chermayeff, Wasserman, and Shapiro, 1991, p. 70), and 'lives in between' (Spitzer, 1989) which capture the flavour of this situation.

'While I am not a whole American, neither am I what I was when I first landed here; that is, a Bulgarian. . . . In Bulgaria I am not wholly a Bulgarian; in the United States not wholly American' Stoyan Christowe in 1919 (Chermayeff, Wasserman, and Shapiro, 1991, p. 74).

'I identify as neither male nor female' (Bornstein, 1994, p. 4.)

As Castles and Miller remark, 'it is part of the migrant condition to develop multiple identities, which are linked to the cultures of both the homeland and of the country of origin' (1998, p. 297).

Given the 'rules' of gender (Garfinkel, 1967), crossing the binary gender divide has generally been preferable to being neither one thing nor the other. Today there appears to be more of a possibility of seeing such marginal positions in a positive light - as 'both/and' rather than 'neither/nor' (Bolin, 1994; Ekins and King, 1999).

Concluding Remarks

Demographers have tended to assume that the gender composition of a society can only change as a result of births, deaths and migration, by which they mean emigration to or immigration from other societies. Internal migration between gender categories has been ignored. Yet the gender composition of the United States, Britain and many other western countries has changed since the early 1950s because a small but increasing number of people have migrated across the gender border. And that is just what has happened: people have given up one life and begun another. They have done so at different points in the life-cycle and they have done so more or less successfully. They have had to tell their stories to the 'immigration officials' and submit to various investigations. Some have assimilated, others have chosen not to or have been unable to do so. Amongst the gatekeepers there is some debate about the criteria to be satisfied before someone is allowed over the border but there are others who object, on religious, medical or political grounds to any border crossings whatsoever.

The notion of an 'age of migration' refers largely to the sheer scale of the phenomenon. Castles and Miller claim that, despite a lack of hard figures, international migration has greatly increased since the middle of the twentieth century and particularly since the 1980s (1998, p. 4). 'International migration', they write,'has never been as pervasive, or as socioeconomically and politically significant, as it is today' (1998, p. 283). A lack of hard figures also characterises gender migration which, though, is almost certainly miniscule compared to the geographical kind. At present there is no reliable information on the extent to which gender migration occurs or whether and to what extent it varies across different societies. Estimates exist but political and other interests may lead to inflated or deflated figures. Nevertheless the numbers may not be inconsiderable; Conway (2001), for example, has estimated that there are at least 32,000 U.S. males who have surgically crossed the gender border.

Whilst it may be difficult to be sure of the actual numbers involved, however, the indications are that the number of gender migrations like that of other migrations is increasing. At London's Charing Cross Hospital an average of thirty sex reassignment operations per year were performed during the 1970s (interview) rising to approximately 150 per year at the end of 2000 (Rufford, 2000). Conway (2001) estimates that the number of sex reassignment operations performed on U.S. males rose from around 1,000 during the 1960s to between 15,000 and 20,000 during the 1990s. Global variations are even more speculative. To what extent is this increase the result of a more or less stable number of candidates taking up the more widely available and more widely publicised opportunities for gender migration? To what extent is the increase the result of a greater pool of candidates? These are intriguing questions.


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Citation: King, D., Ekins, R., (2004), Gender Migration And Citizenship, GENDYS 2004, The Eighth International Gender Dysphoria Conference, Manchester England.
Web page copyright GENDYS Network. Text copyright of the author. Last amended 18.07.06