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The Gender Frontier

mbeale's picture

      Kate Bornstein, in her Gender Workbook, comments that the transgender rights movement is exceptional in the facts that it has risen up via the internet, making it a uniquely modern age event. Through the new medium of the internet, the transgender movement is quickly picking up resemblance of the momentum of the women’s liberation movement of the 60s era.  Both are closely related in their ultimate goal of equality and wanting, despite self- embraced or imposed gendered or sexed designations, to be recognize as persons primarily based on multiplicitous individualities. Another commonality between the women’s liberation movement of the 60s era and the more recent transgender revolution is the necessity politicizing of one’s identity, essentially to make someone’s identity into an issue to bring it to the attention of the greater population.

    Better known as “Make the personal political” in the feminist world, it is that which is a response to the “mainstream identity.” The normative population, in an attempt to consolidate themselves as the legitimate identities, use the technique of othering certain groups, such as women and transsexual and transgendered individuals. Photojournalist and author of The Gender Frontier, a photobook largely dedicated to the conversion narratives of transgender persons, Mariette Pathy Allen, says,

“When I show my work to people outside the transgender community they want me to define the categories, to explain who is what, and how their bodies work. But what interests me are questions such as: How would you react to this image if I told you it’s a man or a woman? What does that do to your definition of yourself? Does your identity change when your partner changes?”

Having recently come to the conclusion in class discussion that perhaps we should emit the term “feminist” as it is an potentially exclusive, female-oriented term as feminism is needed by everyone if it mainly asks equality, I wonder if everyone needs transgender and transsex equality for the same reason: To be equal, we must question our roles within the society we claim to uphold; Everyone must question their sex and gender.

      I have decided to include photographs and quotations from particularly remarkable individuals featured in The Gender Frontier to invite everyone, as well as myself, how their gender and sex orientations and identities are challenged, altered, or even reinforced by their various stories:

“I’m Marla now. I used to be a guy named Mike. He was a police officer and an undercover ‘Narc’ for the NYPD. Mike was constantly striving for the approval of his ‘man’s man’ father, a fireman in the NYFD. In 1972, Mike was the 98 pound collegiate wresting champion of New York, but all this was a lie. I was living a double life. In fact, the only time Mike wasn’t occupied with the thought of wanting to be become female was when he was trying to figure out the reason why. Eventually Mike left the police force and found the courage to do what he felt he needed to do to survive… Marla is trying to make up for lost time and energy that I wasted on issues surrounding my gender…At age 47, I’m finally beginning to accept  myself for the individual that Mike and Marla really is.” (Marla, 144)

“…Theresa got heavily into prostitution. She did not do hard drugs, but drank and went shopping every day. The money she made from prostitution was addictive. She also took more and more female hormones to get bigger breasts. Until late last year, the hormones did not interfere with her ability to perform sexually— she functioned as a ‘top.’ Theresa liked to dominate men: ‘I like to bring any shred of gayness they might have. I’m a very pretty gay boy. A boy with breasts. I’m good at knowing what attracts men. I knew I would never grow up to be a man. But I’m not a woman either. I would never want to have SRS (sexual re-assignment surgery). I don’t want anything fake.’” (Theresa, 145)

“Now I marvel at ‘normal’ people and puzzle: Isn’t it boring to be one sex all your life?” (Antonia149)

“…he found that his roommates, in their search for family contact information, had discovered his hidden cache of women’s clothing. To enormous relief, though, their friendship was undiminished by their new knowledge of hi. Recognizing the danger to his health posed by his continued shameful hiding, John resolved to tell his lifelong secret to those closest to him, including his parents, seven siblings, and favorite aunt. Their response of love and acceptance helped lessen his feelings of shame and guilt, but he still yearned to cross-dress. This kept him at home, alone.” (Nancy, 152)

“Although it has been 17 years since Max transitioned, he has not had surgery. He feels he makes a good role model for young guys by showing that you can live with the body parts you have. ‘I’m a man with my clothes on, and without my clothes. And that is what I protect.’ Maxwell’s life is in tune with developments over the past decade. He is the epitome of gender role fluidity, which makes his everyday life a political act. While other activists join vigils outside courthouses to protest violence against transgender people, Maxwell and Cori make love.” (Maxwell, 155)

“Through the internet, he has been tracing both sides of his family. Since most of them refuse to accept his transsexuality, still calling him ‘Loren,’ he is delighted to discover that they are as unacceptable to society as he is to them. ‘My heritage is Polish, Cherokee, West Virginia Hillbilly, Melungeon, Portyghee, Free Person of Color, Black Dutch, Gypsy, tramp, and thief.” (Cas, 157)


“When Robert had chest reduction surgery, his surgeon told him a hysterectomy was ‘unnecessary’. Like many transmen, Robert was uncomfortable going to an obygn and had not had a check-up for years. When he discovered he had ovarian cancer, over 20 doctors at three hospitals refused to treat him. One obgyn guessed that having a transsexual in his waiting room would make his ‘regular’ patients uncomfortable. After losing a month of critical time, Robert found a doctor willing to treat him, but it was too late… ‘I felt like this beautiful person I love so much was casually sentenced to death for being different. Nature delights in diversity. Why can’t human beings?’” (Robert+ Lola, 159)


 “Tony had a brother and sister, but thought there were boys and one girl in the family until she saw her brother’s penis. ‘Where’s mine?’ she asked. She thought she’d found the answer when she overheard her mother quip: ‘Next she’ll start trying to kiss her elbows to turn into a boy!’  Tony tried every contortion. ‘I was a boy in my mind, but I thought that was the magic trick that would make everyone see as I saw myself.’ (Tony, 163)


Anne Dalke's picture

Notes Towards...?

These are powerful images and quotations, but this webevent reads like "notes towards" a paper, a cut-and-pasting of material that needs considerable work yet to articulate an argument.

You preface all the material you reproduce from The Gender Frontier by saying (as Kate Bornstein certainly says in The Gender Workbook) that "everyone must question their sex and gender," and you say that w/ this gallery you are inviting everyone, as well as yourself, to reflect (? not sure…no verb there) on "how their gender and sex orientations and identities are challenged, altered, or even reinforced by their various stories."

The answers to those questions are the punch lines this paper doesn't get to: how has your thinking about your own identity been changed by your encounters w/ these texts? How are you thinking differently than you were when this course began, than you were before you saw these images and words? What about the changed thinking of others? (Do you want to construct a survey to find out??)