Tuesday, September 7, 2010

My take on transgender theory

There are different ways by which people see and judge transgender persons. These are due to the pre-existing views they hold, which comprise myths, stereotypes, as well as the prevailing theories of sex, gender and sexuality propounded by influential institutions (medical, psychiatric, legal, anthropological, sociological, poststructualist).

Beneath each view or theorisation we have of a specific transgender person lies a set of assumptions and beliefs shaped and informed by ideological subscription and discursive subjugation, unwilling and willing.

Without citations, because this is a blog (yay! Let me be lazy for once, okay?), I shall show different views held by different scholars pertaining to transgender persons. I shall focus on the academic fascination and theorisation with the male-to-female transsexual, or transwoman (never mind pre-op, post-op or non-op).

I shall also show the assumptions and theoretical frameworks that spawn such views.

1) "Transsexual women are not real women."
Okay. One name comes to mind and you should know this... Guess who?? Janice Raymond.

But we should thank her for opening the can of worms that is transgender theory by the way. (Most worms are bisexual by the way).

Any way, the view that transwomen are not real women is premised on the assumption that to be a woman, you have to be born/"originally" female-bodied. This is the assumption that insists on the alignment of biology and physicality, with that gender status (i.e. man/woman).

In this view, you have to be born female and treated/oppressed accordingly to your biology to be recognised as a woman.

The statement says something about the assumptions one holds. And the assumptions that one hold say something about one's self and political agenda.

a) Is one trying to preserve the institution of gender binarism in the process by silently insisting on it?

b) Is one trying to forward an essentialist argument by naturalising it?

c) Is one trying to say that radical separatist lesbian feminism is and should be the best and truest point of view in feminism?

2) "Transsexual women are reproducing stereotypes of women."
At another level, there is the argument that transsexual women are just merely reproducing the stereotypes of women and femininity.

a) Some scholars have pointed out that male-bodied individuals use their "male privileges" and technology (of course), forge alliances with male doctors, to create a female body that is desirable to men, hence the reproduction of stereotypes, which is indicative of the charge that transsexual women willingly reproduce the patriarchal cultural logic of gender. They are charged to be wanting to assume the characteristics of male-constructed femininity.

b) However, the view in 2a does not take into account the social, economic and political (contextual) circumstances that coerce or compel the individual to reproduce this cultural logic of gender, which is heteronormative and insistent on dimorphism.

There are social, political and professional repercussions on the transsexual woman if she does not become recognised as a woman, or pass. Obviously, she wants to be free from harassment, which sometimes compels the need to don culturally recognised markers of femininity.

There are processes behind the process that is the embodiment of femininity that cannot be ignored.

The views 2a and 2b also reveal the conceptual frameworks different scholars use to understanding transsexual women.

i) How do we read transsexual women as subjects already constituted in power (i.e. heteronormative gender binarism)? Do we read them as willing or coerced, villains or victims? (Are these dichotomies even relevant?)

ii) To what extent do we conceive and afford transsexual women agency (in the sociological sense)? Do we conceptualise them as masters of their own lives and destinies, capable of subversion and negotiation? Or do we conceptualise any form of mastery as illusory, indicative of complicity in the very discourses that constitutes them as subjects/objects? (And what do our choices of questions about transsexual women say about us ourselves? What is it about "us" when we engage in a process of asking questions about "them"?)

iii) Are we more occupied with the project of dismantling gender binarism and patriarchy, prioritising these exercises over actually representing transpeople?

3) "Transsexual women provide the necessary discursive resistance/subversion against gender binarism"
Again, why the focus on the possibilities that transpeople bring? What does that say about your theoretical project?

And if your project is to disprove the alignment of sex, gender and sexuality, what does that say politically about your selection for transpeople for analysis?

Any way, there are two views here.

a) Transsexual women do provide narratives that can subvert and contradict heteronormative as well as homonormative discourses, plus discourses that are premised and insistent on dimorphic binarism.

With respect to this position, again, what does it say about the theoretical project of the scholar espousing this view? That the theoretical project is prioritised ahead of actually studying transgender people?

b) At the same time, with regards to drag and the Butler reading of drag as parody, indicative of the performativity of gender, there are social, political and economic processes and limitations that circumscribe it. This is where the textuality of 3a is limited by the context from which text is arisen and read. Drag might be nightclub drag for professional reasons in a professional exclusive setting (Namaste), or might be "oscillating" drag (Ekins and King), or might not even constitute drag but the primary and default identity of the individual.

c) Adopting a Foucauldian perspective on power in the context of transgender's oppression, the sites for resistance and its articulation are well within the domains of gender oppression, heteronormality and cissexism/genderism.

On the one hand, narratives of transsexual women may be read as constituents of dominant discourses on binarism. On the other, these articulations may also be read as conscious reconfigurations of the narratives of binarism, the reconfigurations themselves constituting newer (yet subversive) political and social processes. Ultimately, both views are contingent on whether transsexual women, in this case, are subjects with agency in the sociological sense, or subjects constituted in discourse/power in the poststructuralist sense.

With regards to this theoretical and disciplinary contention/tension, what would be the grounds for designing this continuum of "agency"? Would this continuum still be theoretically blinkered?

To sum things up, when we study transpeople, whether with a view to give them a voice or to interrogate sex, gender and sexuality across various contexts, we need to evaluate our disciplinary, theoretical, methodological, moral and philosophical orientations/subscriptions, especially their shortcomings. Their selection/omission constitute political and moral processes, and their shortcomings will greatly affect the way transpeople are re-presented in academic literature.


Weiye said...

What can i say? it's hard being in the middle of conflicts. you get kick left right center up down by both warring parties.

Choose one side and you'll at least have 1/2 the world + one (yourself) to trash the other (now less than) 1/2. It's a win for you, whichever side you choose.

Sylvia said...

Great article.

Just 1 comment about "Most worms are bisexual..." I think you mean to say that most worms are hermaphrodites. Worms can't really have a bisexual orientation if the objects of their desire is neither (fully) male or female right?