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Reconciling my Trans Identity with Gender Theory

samuel.terry's picture

The transgender identity has been widely used in theory to problematize the hegemonic gender order. The transgender subject is relegated to the deviant unintelligible—othered—in the hegemonic discourse specifically in regards to the regulation of sex/gender congruity.  In Undoing Gender Judith Butler argues that the abjection and exclusion of the trans* identity  serves to secure the socially constructed and discursively produced boundaries that signify the dualistic categories of gender. Furthermore, it is not just that transgender challenges signification, or the creation of meaning for gender, but also the embodiment of those identities—their corporal manifestations. For Butler, transgender identities exist within a feminist framework in that they collectively call into question the relation between signifiers of gender and sexed bodies. Thus, trans people are situated  at the center of the “new gender politics” about the viability of intelligibility (Butler 4).  However, intelligibility is not accepted as the object of  identity rather some theorists advocate that trans folks should represent the unintelligible—embracing the otherness that has marked them as deviant. Then there are transgender individuals, such as myself, who have to exist within and in some senses despite the dialectic.


In Son’s of the Movement Noble asserts that transgender offers the potential to “embody new possibilities for resistance” (74).  Transgender is marked not by the transitioning from one sexed position to another but the refusal to do so entirely. Rather, transgender folks, transmen in particular, graft new articulations of the body onto the old one wherein “one materialization is haunted by the other, as opposed to crossing or exiting” (84). Instead of becoming legible through conforming to the normative, trangender folks should occupy “permanent incoherence” (Noble, 15).  In this Noble is echoing Bornstein’s call for the gender outlaws. However, I would argue far from deconstructing hegemony Noble and Bornstein are privelgaing a particular type of trans* subject, a queered subject, one whose expression of gender is invested in destabilization. For Noble those transgender subjects who attempt intelligibility are proscribing to the “alibi of gender essence” promulgated by normalized power and the offering of false coherence by technological means. However, I wonder how can the hierarchy of intelligible and unintelligible bodies be disassembled when they continue to be conceptualized as the base for opposition.


It would follow that the opposition to incoherence for trans folks is calling for assimilation in the constituted normative order and a continued abjection of the other other. In Bodies that Matter this is exactly what Butler rejects. Rather than advocating for the proliferation of coherent identity positions promoted by identity politics an effort must be made to expose the “fictions of an imperialist humanism that works through unmarked privilege” (Butler 118). Rather, what is suggested for is a more nuanced understanding of all persons relation to the structuring norms of gender.  No gender expression renders the subject totally coherent or intelligible. Rather psychic complexity requires an ethics of recognition. Butler writes “the effort to enforce the boundaries of what will be regarded as real requires stalling what is contingent, frail open to fundamental transformation in the gendered order of things” (35).   Thus, we abject non-normative embodiments of gender not because of their otherness and unfamiliarity, but because they force us to recognize the permeability and otherness within normative gender embodiments itself.


However feminist thought can lose something intrinsic to trans folk in over-simplification and solidarity.  In FTM: Female-to-Male Transsexuals in Society Aaron Devor writes, “that most of the issues confronted by transsexual persons are neither theoretically nor practically distinct from those of other members of society and that gender and sex dysphorias and gender fluidity are a part of all of our lives”  (xxvii). To argue that it is simply a matter of degrees is to deny the specificity of the transgender identity and the internal conflict maybe not itself a predisposition but often experienced by trans* folks like me.


I must at this point recognize that these theories are dense and nearly unintelligible in their abstraction. I am also cognizant of the fact that I don’t make them anymore accessible in my explanation, which serves a functional and demonstrative purpose. On the one hand I like theory, I like reading it I like engaging with it and I like challenging others to do the same.  I don’t believe that theory should necessarily be evaluated based on its digestibility. Gender in abstraction, like gender in its application—specifically trans-identities, is difficult to understand. It requires a constant reevaluation, transformation, and contextualizing of discourses, performance and practices.  However, what I can do is locate my own subjective identity within the dialectic. I am a transgender male. I use male pronouns, I wear male designated clothing, I bind my chest to appear flat, and I take hormones to look and sound more masculine. These are the ways I perform and embody my gender. They signify my maleness in normative ways that make it intelligible. And yes, I want to be intelligible because despite how much I can appreciate radical theories and those who embody them being “read” as male is important to me. “Passing” is the best form of validation for my identity because it renders a body that feels so foreign real.  Whatever strides theory makes to normalize bodies like mine, for me, my body will always be a site of incoherence—alien, abject, isolated from my psyche. I struggle to locate my agency in this identity that does feel biologically determined in the sense that it is intractable. I have a difficulty creating the ontology that speaks to that complexity.

Works Cited
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "sex" New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.
Devor, Holly. FTM: Female-to-male Transsexuals in Society. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1997. Print.
Noble, Jean Bobby. Sons of the Movement: FtMs Risking Incoherence on a Post-queer Cultural Landscape. Toronto: Women's, 2006. Print.


Anne Dalke's picture

On reading

What strikes me most here is the contrast between your defense of difficult theory—“I don’t believe that theory should be evaluated based on its digestibility”; “these theories are dense and nearly unintelligible in their abstraction. I don’t make them anymore accessible in my explanation, which serves a functional and demonstrative purpose”—and your description, in your final paragraph, of the importance of making an “incoherent” body “readable” (“digestible”? “intelligible” “accessible”?). Theories don’t need to be accessible, you argue, but the self, your self, does.

Your argument puts me in mind of Elizabeth Ellsworth—do you know her work? She’s interested in media forms and public pedagogies, and she’s taught me a lot about unpredictable “uptake,” about “the unruly and unresolved dynamics of self and society that reign in that space between perception and cognition.” For Ellsworth, the “self” capable of the kind of rational performance most often sought in classrooms is itself illusory: “The fact of the unconscious ‘explodes the very idea of a complete or achieved identity’—with oneself through consciousness, or with others through understanding.” Using the film studies notion of “mode of address” to talk about who the teacher and the curriculum “think students are,” Ellsworth describes the “eruptive, unruly space between a curriculum’s address and a student’s response (as) populated by the difference between conscious and unconscious knowledge, conscious and unconscious desires.” Rather than suggesting ways to bridge this gap, Ellsworth argues that it is to be preserved as the space of agency and of learning; she claims that it is actually  “resistance to the banalities of normalization that makes agency possible.” If such a thing as a “perfect fit” were possible, it would in fact guarantee that no learning would happen.

Reading, in Ellsworthian mode, is very different from what you propose—clear signaling and understanding, rendering the subject coherent and intelligible--and also very different from what Butler describes in “Is Gender Burning?”: "'Reading' means taking someone down, exposing what fails to work at the level of appearance, insulting or deriding someone....For a performance to work...means that a reading is no longer possible...that the artifice works, the approximation of realness is achieved."

So, of course: to go on reading, talking, thinking, feeling….