MODO DE VOLAR

And He was asking him, "What is your name?" And he said to Him, "My name is Multitude; for we are many."

‘My Gender is Tranny’: the phallus and trans-feminine embodiment

ebc01c35471905d78ab7f9c61f48f83c

 

 

Cross-posting two related pieces from Palace of Floods

The first was written for the Dysphoria Collective zine ‘A Map of Wounds’ (available here), and is shared here in slightly amended form; the second is an excerpt from the methodology chapter of my thesis. 


 

1

My gender is tranny; my gender is contradiction

Visiting a friend in Hamburg, we stop to buy chips – I speak no German, so she orders for me. As we walk away, she tells me that the man who served us had referred to me in the feminine. Surprised and unexpectedly relieved, I well up a little, then feel confused. Was his correct pronoun use because I passed as female? Because he read me as queer and recognised my presentation as feminine? Because he was being polite, following my friend’s lead? What space lies between these things?

To move through public space presenting as a transwoman is to move between repeated assessments, negotiations, and interrogations of your gender. The space between affirming and diminishing interactions is not just an emotional or social one, it is also a physical one. As I move between encounters I attempt to respond as appropriate – minimise my presence and fill less space; keep my head up, shoulders back, and walk on calmly; smile and take the recognition when I can; walk or run away when I have to.

[Presenting as trans for the first time, in a shopping centre] I experienced my gender as a sort of moving target, like one of those opposing moving sidewalks in modern airports. I was moving in one direction and the spectators were moving in the other, and somewhere in between my gender was constructed and re-constructed with each fleeting movement

(Doan, 2010; 638)

Our gender is never ours.

The wish or assertion of contemporary hegemonic transgender politics – that ‘my gender is mine alone to determine’ – is an impossibility. Gender is a set of negotiations: ossified social forms refracted through individual encounters, sometimes fleeting and unstable, sometimes fixed by sedimentation. One’s gender can never be decided by strength of conviction alone; at least not in any meaningful sense. It is the result of a set of relationships we find ourselves within, each encounter standing as a momentary determination of what it is possible to be. In my house, among my queer enclave, I am she, I am femme; in the GIC I am transwoman, I am ‘already some way to being convincingly feminine’; in the off-licence I am sir, I am politely reduced to a man in a dress; in the street I am faggot, I am tranny.

My gender is all of these things. My gender is circumscribed, imposed, determined.

That my body became the site of all kinds of social inspection and pronouncements didn’t surprise me. But the virulence did. I was accosted from every direction: from the men who hissed at me on street corners; to the man on the train who leaned over and said, ‘nice tits’, as I boarded; to the construction workers who whistled or yelled, ‘faggot!; to the driver who rolled down his window at a crowded intersection, the very first time I went out in a dress, to shout, ‘God, you are uuug-ly!’ [My body] heretofore just a place to put food, carry out certain operations of pleasure, and get me from point A to point B, had overnight become an armed camp which I surveyed at my peril

(Wilkins, 1997; 548)

Inhabiting my body as a transgender body distances me from it – its surface becomes a site of conflict. I am stalked by the phallus, that marker of masculine presence around which the myriad encounters that constitute the living-out of gender are organised. This inescapable signifier of my birth-assigned masculinity is reflected in my height, my shoulders, my hands, my hairline, my poorly concealed five o’clock shadow. To present as a transwoman is to attempt the erasure or concealment of all those bodily, gestural, and relational signifiers that lead back inevitably to the phallus. It is to attempt an escape from the phallic as unliveable social position and condition.

But this escape is only possible through an inadvertent rejection of the body itself. The body is made conscious of itself as alien object, as tool for presentation of a self simultaneously made abstract and transcendental. So I alter my body, in its appearance and then in its physicality, looking for the moment at which it will no longer conjure the spectre of the phallus, no longer place me in the social position of masculine and patriarchal presence. At that point perhaps I will cease to relate to it as surface and as tool, but maybe the damage will already be done – or maybe on some level that is what it is to inhabit a female body, and this is the kernel of truth in the assertion that ‘transwomen are women’.

Until then, my gender is tranny, because the contradiction between the social significance of my body and my attempted erasure of the ever-present phallus is inescapable. I wish to bewoman but I am transwoman. I hope to be transwoman but I am faggot.

a builder shouts “what it is? We’ll never know!” at me to impress his sniggering friends

a man follows me around the post-office demanding to know if I am a man or a woman

another man propositions me in an off-licence, then says “I love winding you girls up, or you boys up, or whatever you are”

Gender is the phallus and its lack, is presence and absence, is active and passive, is public and private, is production and reproduction, is culture and nature, is rationality and feeling. Our movement within it is always constrained. To be trans is to reject your assigned position within this hierarchical binary division, and thus to attempt a rejection of the division itself – but it is rarely to succeed in either. It is to wait for a perfected state of being in which that rejection would truly be possible, and to struggle for a way to live until that moment is reached.

So I surround myself with friends who will assist me in imagining I have successfully severed myself from the phallic presence that I despise, and take comfort in those moments in which a stranger refers to me in the feminine. I know that my community shares a political stance that makes the imagined erasure of the phallus possible, but I try not to interrogate the motivations of strangers because I know that my association with the masculine and the patriarchal is inevitable, that my body marks me as such. And I hope for a day when the final eradication of phallic power will be possible in the eradication of gender itself, freeing my body from its shadow.


It was from the following text that I distilled / evolved the previous piece, so many of the same ideas are presented again here – albeit more dispassionately.

The previous piece was intended to articulate the possibility of a radical feminism rooted in the politicisation of trans-feminine dysphoria, as flight from masculine / phallic presence. It aimed to highlight the impossibility of that flight ever being total within a social context that still socialises individuals such as me ‘male’ and ascribes an idea of masculinity to certain bodies. I hope to return to this at some point, to more fully explore this politics as a specifically radical feminist standpoint that might also draw on Marxist and materialist feminisms.

For now, I’m posting this as some preliminary thoughts on the theorisation of trans-feminine embodiment / experience of self that underlays the previous piece. This text is more neutrally presented and less politically mobilised – the link with the phallus that provided the political centre of the previous piece is absent. Hopefully, though, it will afford some explanation of the experience of embodiment described in the previous piece, and maybe posting it here will prompt me to develop the political framework that it suggests more fully.


2

Much of the literature around transgender embodiment centres on the modified body, either related to other forms of body modification or sharply differentiated from them by the complication of gender identity. Nikki Sullivan represents the first approach, likening physical transition to practices of cosmetic and ‘alternative’ bodily modification. She suggests that ‘in one sense at least, all of these forms of embodiment could be said to constitute and to be constituted by, transmogrification: that is, a process of (un)becoming strange and/or grotesque, (un)becoming other’ (Sullivan, 2006; 561). Bernice Hausman takes the opposite approach, highlighting the difference between transition and body modification by drawing attention to common narratives of transgender autobiography. She writes that the central significance of medical transition is necessarily contradictory in these narratives, as the body is understood simultaneously as inconsequential to gender as a ‘psychological construct disconnected from physiology’ and yet is central to its living – otherwise ‘sex reassignment surgery would be unnecessary’ (Hausman, 1995; 352).

Both poles of this literature present the transgender body as one defined by an ‘otherness’ and a conflict between the existing categories of sex and gender, nature and culture – either through the simple fact of body modification or in the contradiction between gender as identity and gender as physiology. Donna Haraway makes a similar argument, claiming the transgender body as one image of the cyborg identity that she imagines precipitating the collapse of boundaries between human and animal, organic and machine, physical and non-physical. While this emerging cyborg world threatens ‘the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet’, at the same time ‘a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints’ (Haraway, 1991; 107).

While physical transition is not a universal transgender experience, these discussions highlight the boundary-crossings that form the heart of social understandings of what it is to be transgender. This quality of otherness is central to the ways in which the transgender body is read, categorised, and reacted to. Susan Stryker: ‘transsexual embodiment, like the embodiment of the monster, places its subject in an unassimilable, antagonistic, queer relationship to a Nature in which it must nevertheless exist’ (Stryker, 1994; 248). Rather than an experience of the transformed body, Stryker focuses on ‘the subjective experience of being compelled to transgress what Judith Butler referred to as the highly gendered regulatory schemata that determine the viability of bodies’ (ibid; 253). This inevitable transgression of categories is initially internally felt, but is also materialised in interactions with others.

Riki Anne Wilchins provides an account of the way in which reactions to her began to change as she was read more consistently as feminine. She writes:

that my body became the site of all kinds of social inspection and pronouncements didn’t surprise me. But the virulence did. I was accosted from every direction: from the men who hissed at me on street corners; to the man on the train who leaned over and said, “nice tits”, as I boarded; to the construction workers who whistled or yelled, “faggot!”; to the driver who rolled down his window at a crowded intersection, the very first time I went out in a dress, to shout, “God, you are uuug-ly!”

(Wilkins, 1997; 548)

The experience of these mixed and contradictory reactions to her queer body meant that her body, ‘heretofore just a place to put food, carry out certain operations of pleasure, and get me from point A to point B, had overnight become an armed camp which I surveyed at my peril’ (Wilchins, 1997; 548). This instability of categorisation and inability to predict how the body will be read results in a hyper-awareness of the body as signifier, gradually distancing oneself from it. For Wilchins, the central experience of transgender embodiment is not a direct experience of the body at all, but a concern for way in which others perceive it: ‘it becomes successively less important what her body feels like than how she feels about it’ (ibid; 549). The transgender subject is denied a stable self-image and is therefore denied immediate self-knowledge, always relying on (and yet unsure of) the reactions of others.

This hyper-awareness of the body as surface and collection of signifiers comes through in my fieldnotes, as does the transgression of categories as provocation for abuse. Like Wilchins, I can name a set of instances of transphobic harassment – a builder shouts ‘what it is? We’ll never know!’ to impress his sniggering friends; a man follows me around the post-office demanding to know if I am a man or a woman; another man propositions me in an off-licence, then says ‘I love winding you girls up, or you boys up, or whatever you are’. These moments of explicit confrontation represent points at which a more generalised unease spills over into active hostility. This relationship between the transgender body-as-surface and its surroundings becomes encoded in space itself. On one level this occurs through the accumulation of experience and memory: spaces in which previous abusive encounters have occurred become more anxiety-provoking, while other spaces feel safer. On a second level certain spaces seem to act through an unconscious provocation of anxious or relaxed affect, playing off subtle social signifiers and modes of inhabitation. Some spaces encourage a heightened awareness of the body while in other spaces it fades into the background.

Here, Hausman’s description of the tension between gender as intangible ‘psychological construct’ and as an experience of the physiology of the body is useful. This contradiction between gender’s two modes is played out across bodily surfaces. Stryker’s writing demonstrates that external reactions to the body shape its internal experience, while at the same time a particular experience of the body itself drives transgender desire for self-representation in the ‘transgressive’ manner that provokes those reactions. The transgender body can thus be understood not only as a modified body or a body marked by the transgression of social categories, but as a body riven by a tension between between gender as physiology and gender as identity, mediated by the way in which each is derived from a wider set of relations structured around social reproduction. This mediation of personal gender (as subjective identity and bodily experience) by social gender (as objective structuring abstraction) relates that internal contradiction to oppositions between public and private, active and passive, culture and nature. In doing so it renders the subjective navigation of transgender social position productive of a particular mode of embodiment and experience.


Bibliography:

Doan P. L. (2010) ‘The tyranny of gendered spaces – reflections from beyond the gender dichotomy’ in Gender, place and culture vol. 17, no. 5, pp. 635-654

Haraway, D. (1991) ‘A cyborg manifesto’ in Stryker, S. and Whittle S. (eds.) (2006) The transgender studies reader New York: Routledge

Hausman, B. L. (1995) ‘Body, technology, and gender in transsexual autobiographies’ in Stryker, S. and Whittle S. (eds.) (2006) The transgender studies reader New York: Routledge

Stryker, S. (1994) ‘My words to Victor Frankenstein above the village of Chamounix: preforming transgender rage’ in Stryker, S. and Whittle S. (eds.) (2006) The transgender studies reader New York: Routledge

Sullivan, N. (2006) ‘Transmogrification: (un)becoming others(s)’ in Stryker, S. and Whittle S. (eds.) (2006) The transgender studies reader New York: Routledge 

Wilchins, R. A. (1997) ‘What does it cost to tell the truth?’ in Stryker, S. and Whittle S. (eds.) (2006)The transgender studies reader New York: Routledge

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Information

This entry was posted on 17/03/2016 by in Sem categoria.
%d bloggers like this: