Transgender & Personal Identity

Full Overview

1. Introduction to the Project

Immediately at birth the world is divided into men and women, male and female, and 99% of humanity never deviates from this division in any substantial way. In every culture, to one degree or another, one’s status, career choices, forms of dress, freedom of movement and expression are limited or expanded by the sex/gender division. When we encounter another human being we make the sex classification immediately, and we do so by assuming that sex is congruent with gender. This assumption, essential to our ability to identify who is who and who is what, is not invariably reliable: There remains the 1% who do deviate either due to an intersex condition, or by virtue of being transgendered, i.e., being someone who does not live all of the time in their birth-designated gender.

The internal psychological and external sociological experiences of those who do not identify with their birth-designated gender permits us to examine and potentially to respond to a number of socially important questions. While there are innumerable groups and subgroups of transgender people, I focus on three: early-declared transsexuals (those who demonstrate and announce their transsexuality in childhood), late-declared transsexuals (those who announce their transsexuality in adulthood), and crossdressers. Within each group we will find populations that are female born [FTM], and populations that are male born [MTF]. While it is unusual in current thought to claim that no one not born into a particular sex can belong to its corresponding, there seems to be more doubts about late-declared transsexuals and certainly about cross­dressers. I have touched on this phenomenon in Gilbert (2001) where I allow that trans­sexuals may, but crossdressers do not, have a claim to “womanhood.”

My earlier research has shown that early-declared transsexuals do not have a strong sense of difference in personality or internal phenomenology before and after transition from one gender to another. As a result, using open-ended informal interviews, I intend to collect information on the social and internal experiences of both late-declared transsexuals and crossdressers. This will allow me to hear their experiences of moving toward transition, as well as to learn how the experiential world has changed for them in their new or alternate gender. These discussions are intended to achieve several clear objectives. The first is to enter into and investigate a raging dispute focused on the term ‘autogynephilia.’ This concept distinguishes between early-declared transsexuals as opposed to late-declared transsexuals and cross-dressers with regard to their motivations underlying causes for their gender diversity.

The second goal is to mine the experiences of the two second groups. Regardless of their onto­logical status with respect to sex and/or gender, they do spend time in both camps. Do persons who have moved from one gender to another recognize changes that are related to self-identity? To what extent can that individual experience her/his personal identity being formed by external social forces, and to what extent do changing social roles make an impact on the individual’s personal identity. How, in other words, is the individual’s public and private narrative affected by the transgender reality. The final goal is to determine what we can learn about the dynamics of inter-gender commu­nication, sexism, male prerogative, and unconscious gender assumptions from a group whose members have first lived within the confines and social milieu of the “opposite” gender. In short, I am planning to explore these major social issues by mining the personal narratives, in a syste­matic yet unstructured and phenomenological way, of those who have lived on both sides of the bi-gender fence. Being a member of the community myself, I already know that there is much to be learned from the experience of being a male who is taken for a woman, and I know from FTM friends and my research that the opposite is certainly true. By exploring the impact of such processes both on the individual and upon society, there will be much to be discovered of importance to both the academic world, and the public at large.

2. Objectives of the research

Our world is ruled by gender. From the very first moment of birth when the declaration of sex is made, to the very end in either a women’s or men’s hospital ward, the way is set. Life may follow many paths and have numerous branches and side trips, but one thing is certain: They will all be governed, controlled, limited and confined by gender; whatever role one has, it will be a gendered one (West, Zimmerman 1991). For this reason, those who violate gender rules, and who do not accept that initial birth-designated placement, are marginalized, often vilified, and yet often viewed with fascination. These people, the gender outlaws, to use Bornstein’s (1994) now popular expression, form a group that has insights and experiences not generally available to most people. They live or have lived on both sides of the gender fence, and are able, sometimes, to move back and forth.

I intend to focus on three groups: early-declared transsexuals (those who demonstrate and announce their transsexuality in childhood), late-declared transsexuals (those who announce their transsexuality in adulthood) and crossdressers. Within each group we will find populations that are female born [FTM], and populations that are male born [MTF].

Very few gender theorists today want to say that it is impossible for someone born into a given sex to be unable to become a member of the “opposite” gender; there is more controversy about late-declared transsexuals and certainly about cross­dressers. Work by several researchers has raised the possibility of substantive differences between early and late-declared transsexuals (Bailey, 2003; Blanchard, 1993). I have explored this in my essay on cross-socialization (2001). However, given the recent rush of commentary brought about largely by the publication of Bailey’s The Man Who would Be Queen, the issue requires closer attention. Various commentators have weighed in on this issues, including Gilbert (2000), Lawrence (2004), McCloskey (2006), and Dreger (in press). Consequently, my first goal is:

Goal 1. To conduct a careful scholarly investigation of the philosophical basis of the distinction between early and late-declared transsexuals, and its implications for gender theory.

My second goal it to explore and mine the experiences of late-declared transsexuals and crossdressers with respect to changes in personal self-identity. The idea of “being a woman” or of “being a man” is inextricably linked to the concepts of masculinity and femininity. How do these concepts interact in the context of gender change? Clearly, one can be a masculine woman or a feminine man (Devor 1997) but what information about gender can be garnered from this? How, in short, is the individual’s public and private narrative impacted by the transgender reality. Thus goal two is as follows.

Goal 2. To what extent can a transgendered individual experience her/his personal identity as being formed by external social forces, and to what extent does changing social roles impact on the individual’s personal identity.

The questions I am probing are of both academic and public concern. The American case of J'Noel Gardiner, for example, hinged on whether or not a male-to-female [MTF] person was a woman. If not, then she could not be a wife, and could not inherit her husband’s estate (ABC 2002). Closer to home, the Kimberly Nixon case had the British Columbia Supreme Court overturn the BC Human Rights Tribunal decision that a transsexual woman had the right to train as a rape clinic volunteer (Womennet 2004). Back in the States, a crossdresser who drove a delivery truck for the grocery chain Winn-Dixie was fired when his supervisor learned of his after-work activities. This firing was upheld by the US Supreme Court (ACLU 2004).

The difficulties facing gender outlaws come from all corners. Because we live in a formally bigender world, the limitations and restrictions on those who do not fit that model are mighty. The government and its institutions do their best to protect the existing order, which gives them greater control over the population, and facilitates the perpetuation of patriarchy. The control begins with gate keeping that prevents transgender people from access to hormones and medical procedures, and includes the ubiquitous urinary segregation of public washrooms, the declaration of sex on public documents, to court decisions penalizing members of the trans­gender [TG] community, and sometimes even protecting those who harm them. There is even a small number of feminists who have a strong antipathy toward transgender folk (Greer 1989, Raymond 1994, Ruby 2000), though others, such as, Heyes, have critiqued this attitude. Crossdressers and gender ambiguous people live in terror of having to use a washroom or being stopped by the police; since 9/11 crossdressers can no longer travel by air in their desired gender unless their ID matches it. People who cross gender boundaries, especially when they have lived substantial time in a birth-designated gender are in a unique pos­ition to assess and identify gender specific differences in social spaces. Therefore, goal three is:

Goal 3. The exploration of what we can learn about the dynamics of inter-gender commu­nication, sexism, male prerogative, and unconscious gender assumptions from a group whose members have first lived within the confines and social milieu of the “opposite” gender.

The issues I seek to explore are both alive and important. The various court cases, such as those mentioned above, depend on an understanding of the limitations of gender change. The contentious issue of women only spaces, and where transgender folks fit in, is an example of a difficult issue that needs examination. The questions I want to ask speak to real issues for real people, and the answers might have far reaching consequences. We stand to learn a lot by speaking to the people who live in the gender divide.

3. Context and Background

Transgender people, those of the third sex, have always been with us. In India, from Vedic times, the Sandhu, were recorded as being part man and part woman (Das Wilhelm 2004, Nanda 1993). Many Native Canadian and American tribes acknowledged and often, but not always, revered transgender people, referred to as Two-Spirited and as doubly blessed by the Great Spirit (Whitehead 1993, Williams 1992). In the early 20th century, the seminal work of Magnus Hirschfield appeared (1991) [Orig: 1910]. Much later, and especially following the media fanfare surrounding Christine Jorgensen, there began to appear a number of biographies written by transsexuals describing their journey (in the early cases) from man to woman. The autobiography of Jan Morris, (1974), caused a sensation, as did the court fight and autobiography of Renee Richards, Second Serve (1983), and the subsequent film of the same name starring Vanessa Redgrave. In 1993 Leslie Feinberg wrote hir semi-autobiographical novel about an FTM working class female struggling to find a gender identity. More recently we have Deridre McCloskey’s Crossing (1999), Jamison Green’s, Becoming A Visible Man (2004), and J. Bobby Noble’s Sons of the Movement (2006). These are but a few of many.

In recent times, there has been a change in the sort of writing emerging from the transgender [TG] community. While on the one hand, there has been no diminution of the stream of autobiography, there has also emerged the creation of what can only be called Transgender Theory. Several were written by expert observers of the TG community (Bullough & Bullough 1993, Docter 1988, Ekins 1996), and several others by non-TG academics with connections to the community. Gordene Mackenzie’s book, Transgender Nation, came out in 1994 , followed one year later by Martine Rothblatt’s The Apartheid of Sex. While these two books were widely read within the TG world and its allies, it was the publication in 1998 of Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw that captured the media’s attention. Reviewed in most major newspapers (e.g., [Gilbert 1995]), Bornstein wrote both of her personal journey and of the strictures and issues facing transgender people. Shortly following the publication of Bornstein’s work, a series of more academically orientated works began to appear. Interestingly, many of these were written by FTM scholars who were examining gender from a pheno­meno­logical view, and contributing to the growing work on the body as identity and source of narrative. Between 1997 and 1998 there appeared: Pat Califia’s Sex Changes (1997), Judith Halber­stam’s Female Masculinity (1998), Jay Prosser’s Second Skins (1998), and the widely cited issue of The Gay and Lesbian Quarterly edited by Susan Stryker (1998). In addition, other works on sex that spoke at length about transsexualism appeared not very long ago (Bloom 2002, Fausto-Sterling 2000, Hausman 1995, Meyerowitz 2002).

The importance of my questions is also evidenced by Judith Butler’s famous dictum that gender is performance, and that the iteration of gendered behaviour is at the root of our understanding of gender differences: “This iteratibility implies that ‘performance’ is not a singular ‘act’ or event, but a ritualized production, a ritual reiterated under and through constraint, under and through the force of prohibition and taboo, with the threat of ostracism and even death controlling and compelling the shape of the pro­duction, but not I will insist, determining it fully in advance” (1993). Butler’s work stirred up a great deal of controversy, with many commentators concerned that if gender was merely perfor­mance, then anyone could declare themselves anything they chose (Heinamaa 1997, van Lenning 2004). Butler has clarified these matters in Butler 2003 & 2004, but they still elicit comment.

Crossdressers, as opposed to transsexuals, have been studied in limited ways. There have been several more or less academic books (Bullough & Bullough 1993, Docter & Prince 1997), which are primarily focused on the aetiology of crossdressing, but most of the academic and theoretical interest has been focussed on transsexuals. The majority of books for crossdressers are more how-to based. They can focus on how to be a better crossdresser such as How To Become a Woman, Though a Male (Prince 1967), Crossdressing with Dignity (Rudd 1990), and the surprisingly trenchant Miss Vera's Finishing School for Boys Who Want To Be Girls (Vera 1997), to name a few. Since the great majority of male-to-female [MTF] crossdressers are heterosexual, others deal with the typically awkward issue of crossdressers and marriage. These include the first of its ilk, the Transvestite and His Wife (Prince 1967), a well known and widely read book, Crossdressers and Those Who Share Their Lives (Rudd 1995) and the quite recent My Husband Betty (Boyd 2003) and its sequel (2007).

There has been comparatively little written about crossdressing compared to the literature on transsexuality. Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests (1992), argued for the importance of drag and crossdressing as disturbers of the status quo, and as activities that upset the regular instantiation of gender conformity. Earlier, Annie Woodhouse (1989) discussed the lives of a number of British crossdressers, but in the end became highly focused on their marital relationships which, in her sample, were not very healthy. More recent work is by Ekins (1996, 1997), who discusses the role of male-femaling, and maps out the course of crossdressing in stages, and Aaron Devor (1989, 1997), who discusses both how butch and FTM persons negotiate gender and defy socialization.

4. The Interviews

NB: The research for this project has been approved by the York University Office of Research Ethics following examination by the Human participation Review committee.

The interviews will be open-ended and informal, and will have several points of focus. First, I am concerned with how each individual came to feel “other gendered,” and the manner in which that feeling manifested itself. I am less concerned with the typical question of “how old were you when,” than I am with the question “how did you feel this difference manifesting itself, and how did it impact your self-image and your life?” Devor (1989) has done some of this with butch lesbians, but nothing has been done with MTFs.

The second part of each interview will relate to transitioning. I know from my earlier pilot research that the movement from one gender identity to another is a slow one. The sense of complete gender change is rarely epiphanic, but rather cumulative. Nonetheless, there comes a moment when the “dam bursts,” and I am interested in the feelings engen­dered by this experience, and the reactions that ensue.

The final phase of the inter­view is primarily anecdotal. The objective is to explore experiences the transperson has had of life on the “other side,” with the broader goal of illuminating and instantiating the patriarchal and sexist fabric of society.

The results of my research should shed light on a variety of issues. First, there is the question of what significant differences exist between early-declared transsexuals and late-declared trans­sexuals. That there are differences is not in question, but the philo­sophical and ontological nature of those differences is. I wish to explore, from a phenomenological point of view, the Blanchard and Bailey claim that late-declared MTF transsexual are autogynephil­iacs, i.e., men who are fetishistically attracted to the idea of themselves as women, or might there be some other ground(s) for their transsexuality. In addition, does this apply to FTM transsexuals as well? Considering differences between early-declared transsexuals and late-declared transsexuals also touches on the question of socialization and whether or not one can, if you like, selectively choose cross gender messages if one’s internal identification is completely or partially cross gender. And, if one can cross-socialize, can it be done in secret? Can it be done part time? What memories of transpersons and crossdressers speak to these issues?

The two groups in question, late-declared transsexuals and crossdressers, both have unique insights into the different ways in which society treats the genders. FTM transsexuals find themselves dealing with male friends who make sexist or stereotypical remarks, and MTF transsexuals suddenly become second class citizens and experience patriarchy from within. Interviewing these groups will shed light onto the nature and structure of the sexist institutions that dominate our culture.

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