Transsexual Women

I have been researching and writing about gender issues for more than thirty years.  Apart from brief comments here and there, I haven’t written about transsexuality until quite recently.

There are reasons for this.  There is great pressure on transsexual women to explain themselves: to family, to police, to psychiatrists, to endocrinologists and surgeons, to employers and workmates, to government officials, to border guards, to journalists, and even to researchers.  The demand for self-exposure is both wearing at a personal level, and tends to define transsexuality as bizarre, tabloid-fodder, craziness.

Self-exposure has consequences for other people in one’s life.  Gender transition isn’t a solo event: it’s not a matter of one person’s identity singing inside a bell jar.  Transition is very much about relations with other people, about changing location in social spaces.  On this terrain, one person’s liberation can be another person’s nightmare.  Think of the impact on parents, wives, children. That’s a major reason transsexual women (and transsexual men) usually hesitate a lot before starting transition.

Of course some transsexual women want to tell their stories – autobiographies are the main genre of transsexual writing.  These stories can be helpful, especially to young people having a hard time in terrible isolation.  Finding that other people have been through a similar experience, and come out alive – and even joyful - is not a bad thing.

It’s an issue I’ve thought about a great deal, both before undertaking gender transition, and since.  I’ve been called on to explain myself (to all of the above except, so far, the police.)  I’ve even given media interviews, though with firm boundaries, especially concerning personal relationships and the interests of other people in my life.  I have no desire to spill my story on Oprah.

But I am a researcher, I have been working on gender issues for a long time, and I probably have some understanding to contribute.  I have met with trans activist groups in five countries, both to support their important work and to learn from their experience.  In the last few years have written several pieces about transsexuality: a paper based on a life history interview I conducted twenty-five years ago; a short essay on the use of transsexual experience in a famous piece of feminist sociology; a passage on trans and ‘third gender’ ideas in my book Gender: In World Perspective; and now a long paper, just published in the feminist journal Signs, called ‘Transsexual women and feminist thought: toward new understanding and new politics’.  The article is available here.

It’s an academic paper, in history and social science.  I look back over the troubled history of feminist engagements with transsexual women, tracing the growth-points as well as the dead-ends.  I develop a critique of the focus on identity and normativity in recent writing that has been so much influenced by post-structuralism and queer theory.  I propose an understanding of gender transition in the light of feminist social science, as a complex form of gender practice triggered by contradictions in social embodiment.  I argue for a politics of social justice rather than a politics of identity, and try to think what this might mean on a world scale.

So the paper offers a conceptual alternative to the widely read ‘transgender’ approach of the last two decades.  I have tried to include what is valuable in that approach, but insist that gender issues go far beyond symbolism and identities, to economics, livelihood, power relations, institutions, emotional relations and social embodiment.

It’s also, of course, a deeply personal paper, though not autobiographical.  It brings together my political commitments to gender justice, my long-term involvement with feminist theoretical literature, and transsexual experiences which I have, at least in part, shared.  I hope it will help feminist understanding of transsexual women’s lives and dilemmas.  I hope it will clarify directions for transsexual women’s politics.  And I hope it may – if the goddess is kind – be useful in wider discussions of alliances in social politics.

More resources

For people wanting to understand transsexuality more deeply, the best resources I know are:
Viviane Namaste, Sex Change, Social Change, 2nd edition, Toronto, Women’s Press, 2011.  A sharply observed set of essays that covers politics, theory, and the social realities of transsexual women’s lives including HIV and prisons.

Translatina, a full-length documentary film directed by Felipe Degregori (Peru, 2010), covering the lives of travestis and transsexual women across Latin America, including interviews with activists and some harrowing detail.

Claudine Griggs, Passage Through Trinidad: Journal of a Surgical Sex Change, Jefferson NC, McFarland & Co., 1996.  Also not for the faint-hearted; the best account of what medically-assisted transition really involves.

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