Sunday, September 6, 2009

Transgender Representations: Problems with discourse

I shall now use this blog to write my thoughts down as I organise and write my thesis, titled "Transgender representations". A lot of people tell me I should just write (for fun) as it gives me the opportunity to reflect more.

In a forum I attended, one of the panelists of trans men identifies himself as a heterosexual man who was once a lesbian, an "ex-lesbian".

This utterance poses a epistemic (and perhaps linguistic) challenge. I believe such an expression exposes the limitations of our language - and hence our understanding and knowledge of the world through this language.

In front of an audience probably sharing a common theory of queer identity, the trans person invokes culturally established queer labels to articulate his position as a man.

As we put aside feminist and gender studies' constant attention on gender essentialism, we should turn our focus to the amalgamation of pre-established identities, informed by (hetero)normative discourses and queer discourses on gender identity.

"(Hetero)normative discourses", in a plural form, would probably have taken more credit than it deserves, but I figure it is important to acknowledge differences within heteronormativity - along the lines of culture, age, geography and so on.

For the trans man, being a man entails certain physicality, aesthetics and behaviour. Being a straight man will involve further narrowing and certain specific traits which are culturally recognised and performed.

It is this oxymoronic conscious performance of one's idea of the constitution of masculinity, which reflects the reality of trans assimilation into a society of cultural categories normatised into pre-cultural entities.

According to Judith Butler, performance of gender (and sex and sexuality) is involuntary. The body (and self) is gendered and sexed through culturalisation, such that certain routine/routinised behaviours seem normal and agreeable with our respective categorical genders and sex. These categories become unchallenged as they appear to be ontological.

In the case of the trans man, there is the very valid need to assimilate. Assimilation does not merely involve being part of the pre-established gender binary, but also the social, cultural and economic 'privileges' one enjoys as a member.

I find it very interesting when one's identity disagrees with one's body and the expected set of behaviours culturally attached to it. This disagreement is further highlighted by the open and highly conscious subscription to another set of gendered performance alien to their bodies. In explaining "a straight man trapped in a female body", this indicates the voluntary adoption of specific (male) gendered performance.

However, there are blindsides to this observation. There is a limitation(s) to language in the communication of identity and experiences. To indulge a little bit more in categorisation and taxonomisation, we cannot solely use or rely on certain feminist theories.

There are disastrous scholarly implications, as we box and frame transgender identities and experiences within singular and/or specific theories and concepts. While non-trans individuals have a stake in trans discourses, given a multitude of interactions at the level of the layperson or scholar, we must be aware that narrow framing and convenient conclusions made on trans identities and discourses will pose great threats to trans people and how they are represented - and how we articulate their respective self-representation.

Even the use of "their" is generalising, and runs the risk of reducing individual experiences to convenient pre-existing understandable ideas and concepts, for instance the invocation of "nature versus nurture", wherein a trans person may lose his/her (see the linguistic reflection of my subscription to the gender binary?) subjectivity or have his/her experience diluted and misrepresented through singular generalising theories.

At the very basic level, I find it convenient to rely on existing categories and feminist theories to explain trans discourses. However, given trans discourses are intimately entwined with other discourses, both dominant and subaltern, we have the obligation to explore how trans discourses are situated in, part of, or intersect other discourses, and how other discourses figure in, inform, are part of, or intersect trans discourses.

And (un)fortunately, I believe there is the need for self-interrogation. To borrow loosely from Anthony Giddens' theory of the double hermeneutic, the main course, if not the backbone, of the social sciences, wherein the scholar interprets a preinterpreted world (i.e. I interpret your subjective interpretation of the world), I believe we should make one step further and interrogate the interpretation of the preinterpreted world.

This (self)interrogation will reveal certain limitations of scholarly interpretation (scholar biases, prejudices, socialisation, etc.) and the foundations of scholarly interpretation (language, socialisation, etc.).

So, I believe when we talk about trans discourses, our preoccupation should not be with the trans person. While trans discourses reflect certain conditions of society and realities trans people face, they do borrow from and share similar ideas from other existing discourses and systems - indicating their respective limitations in articulating trans experiences. We also have to recognise the fact discourses are a lot more permeable than we think they are. We become the unknowing intruders, whether layperson, scholar or member, when we make observations and enframe specific discourses, limiting them with unsighted linguistic and conceptual limitations, along with unchallenged and un-queer-ied prejudices.


Caoimhe said...

You kind of lost me at the beginning. What's the challenging part of "ex-lesbian" here?

Sam Ho said...


it's basically about knowledge. like how we are born and socialised into certain kinds of knowledge.

the trans person is born into a cisgendered/sexed world, and his/her language shares the same limitations of other non-trans inhabitants of this world.

i'm intrigued by the term "ex-lesbian" as it borrows the label/identity "lesbian" from queer discourses, and is transplanted into trans discourse.

similarly, but not analogous, would be the hypothetical world wherein there is no "vagina", and everyone will identify female-bodied persons as "dickless". our social system for identification and differentiation becomes oriented towards the presence or absence of the phallus (it actually does so today in other ways).

i feel challenged because i have prejudices too. and the statement made by the trans man got me interrogating my predispositions and theories.

G. said...

Yeah, you kind of lost me at the beginning to. I don't think it has much to do with language... This transman probably wasn't aware that he was trans at first and but had always been aware of his attraction to women. So, while he was a female-bodied person, he would "naturally" gravitate towards thinking that he must be lesbian...

Then, gender identity snuck up on him.