Monday, October 6, 2008

Transgender Engendered Agenda

After attending SGButterfly's anniversary celebration last Saturday, I thought a lot about the transgender identity.

My research topic for my Masters Thesis is (at the moment) on transgender representations.

There are so many questions to be asked and so much to be learned.

And there are so many ways of looking at the topic. Methodologically and discursively, it is a headache, nevermind the subject matter itself.

I still feel it is inadequate to use feminist or queer theory to look at the formation and negotiation of the transgender identity.

Is transgenderism a reproduction of gendered discourse, or not? How?

What is the transgendered lens of viewing? Are we able and should we be viewing it through the male, female, trans-male, trans-female lens? Is the selection of lenses a mere reconfiguration of dominant gendered discourses?

I'm not looking at nor using "third gender" discourse, and it is theoretically so difficult to understand and conceptualise the transgender identity. I guess that is the plight of a "not" studying an "is".

Not to romanticise or patronise transgender studies, but I realise it is a lot more complex (in my opinion) than queer studies. It is so difficult to categorise (if we had to) transgender identities that although it appears that most of us have put the "T" in GLBTQ, we forget that the "T" is not entirely about sexual difference, but incorporates "difference" based on gender identity. Heck, I am even hesitant now categorising them as "sexual minorities".

"Transgender" could be a category on its own, but in such an environment now, the voiceless and oppressed have to form alliances and help one another.

Any how, I look forward to getting my research in order and reading up on transgender studies. Even within the academic community, there are disagreements in this field. I guess that is part of the beauty that is learning.

On another note, having been an audience to a handful of transgendered performances, I have the following thoughts:

1) Where are the men? Why are women, womanhood and femininity being portrayed more than masculinity?

2) In my opinion, some of the shows are a celebration of (new) womanhood and the feminine identity, and sometimes a critique or satire on the performer's past. It is a happy and dramatic concoction of humour, courage and show(wo)manship. Or is there too much of a reading into them?

3) Essentially, through the performances, I feel hyperfemininity is being reproduced. Is this a satire on dominant/hegemonic femininity or a critique on the need for social assimilation?

4) An unrelated thought: Why do some gay men dress in drag (as women) and perform? Is it because while they identify as homosexual, they appreciate the aesthetics of femininity? What are other possible explanations?

5) Why is masculinity not celebrated? Or is the stage not the best place for this?

6) Traditionally, in male-dominated domains, women perform for men. Is the male-to-female transgendered performances a critique or a reproduction of this? I understand many transgendered persons have to make a living and also save up for surgery, so performance may be avenue, while some are driven to enter the sex trade because of discrimination at various levels. So, are performances the choice of the privileged (like most of us) or the choice of the transgendered? Is miming to the music symbolic of anything?

7) I've watched Kumar's stand-up comedy and dance routines, where he dresses in drag. Is he paying a tribute to transgendered performances (other than celebrating and expressing his feminine side)?

8) Ultimately, the people who perform are not representative of everyone who is transgendered. But what is the significance of these performances? How, if we can, do we situate these performances in the context of hegemonic masculinities/femininities?

There are more thoughts than the ones mentioned. In the end, we have to challenge our own pre-conceived notions of gender and the male/female dichotomy.

There are so many questions, which is the most unsettling thing especially when you want to know the answers.


Glass Castle said...

Hi Sam

I found this site really good in helping to make me less clueless about trans issues:

The main thing I'm getting a feel for is the need to be careful about treating trans identity as something that needs to be 'explained' or 'justified' to cis persons or in a way that makes sense in a cis-centred framework. I see this as quite analogous to the recognition that gay rights are not contingent on gay people 'explaining' to a straight person's (or anyone else's) satisfaction 'how' they became gay or 'why' they are gay. The fact that the reality of their experience is not reflected in the usual thinking and behaving patterns that (as applicable, cis-centred or heteronormative) society takes for granted should not mean they are suspect but rather that society's notions need enlarging to better reflect the diversity of persons within it. As a cis person I find I have a lot of learning to do!

Anyway, looking forward to seeing updates on your project if you choose to share them.

- Jolene

Glass Castle said...

Sorry - I meant to say - on this note, while I think it's very true that the personal is political and many private performances have political implications and critiques attached, I think it's really, really important not to try to put this into a cis-centred framework. The hyperfeminity of much transgender performance and some trans persons, for instance, has been the subject of a lot of (painful, and unhelpful, and ultimately supremely cissexist) critiques by Western radical feminists. I agree with the radfems on many things, but I think on transgender identity many are just wrong: and I think some of the arguments they've had with trans activists are quite revealing in this sense. (The archives at Questioning Transphobia are useful for this.) Obviously very Western-centric though, so as your project seems to focus also on Singapore, your mileage may vary!

Apologies if I'm telling you stuff you already know!

- Jolene

Manessa's Memories said...

Drag performance by men, or TG/TS performances by transwomen is the most well-known (and stereotyped) feature of the gay and trans community.

While I cannot comment much on the gay men, performance by transwomen is a legitimised expression of their femininity by society. Society is ok with them performing on stage (and making a living from it), but once they are off the stage, they are mocked in the streets for being who they are.

Such is the irony.

They perform not because it is their nature to enjoy dancing, making ppl laugh, or to like stereotypically feminine things. If social spaces open up, they will surely excel and be well-known in many other things, other than stage performances (and prostitution).

Sam Ho said...

jolene, thanks so much, you have given me more to think about. i really appreciated it. this might be the first or second time i've heard about the term cisgender. but what you've said has given me some direction for research (of course, i've too many directions now haha).

manessa, yes, it is very ironic. i'm still puzzled about the reasons for such performances and their symbolic dimension, and implications, of course, from as many perspectives as possible.

like what jolene pointed out, we tend to frame our discussions in a certain way that might make us (mis)understand TG/TS persons.

thank you both.

Agagooga said...

Men and masculinity are absent because Straight Men are viewed as oppressive and evil.

From observing Kumar I don't find his drag particularly meticulate - other drag queens I've seen (at least online) are more into their drag persona.

Drag Queens and Transvestites and Transsexuals are all different. A Drag Queen just wears female clothing. A transvestite gains sexual gratification or a release of anxiety by dressing as a woman. A (male-female) transsexual wants to BE a woman.

Glass Castle said...

Glad it's useful Sam!

- Jolene

Glass Castle said...

Hi again, Sam. Sorry to hog this comments box - but in case it interests you I've written a fairly long editorial on the stereotype of trans women as sex workers in this fortnight's Glass Castle.

- Jolene

Glass Castle said...

Hi again, Sam. Sorry to hog this comments box - but in case it interests you I've written a fairly long editorial on the stereotype of trans women as sex workers in this fortnight's Glass Castle.

- Jolene