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What is Normal?

Marina's picture


       Society often presents gender as a permanent, unmutable characteristic that one is assigned to from birth. This view of gender as something determined, permanent, and unchanging has been significantly affected by the introduction of certain technologies and surgical procedures that allow individuals to change individual traits formerly considered as stable and irreversible enabling them to more appropriately fit into their perception of themselves as an individual. It seems technology has enabled people to feel more comfortable and complete within their own bodies, which furthers Clark’s notion of the idea of extending oneself through technology since it enables the individual to make changes to their physical presentation that would otherwise be impossible. This reliance on technology to achieve a feeling of completeness and ease in one’s own body may seem disturbing to some, but I argue that technology is something that has evolved through and alongside humans and for that reason should be embraced, not feared or avoided. Gender reassignment surgery is just one avenue through which technology enables the indivdual to become more whole in terms of their perception of themselves.

            Before this course I had done some reading on the relationship of technology and gender in a book titled Normal by Amy Bloom, which explores the experiences of individuals who have undergone sex change operations and how it has altered their view of themselves and their view of gender at large. A FTM transsexual, James, recounts his experiences in the lesbian community before his transition, “I was just too male- not butch but male. I crossed some line somehow, and everyone, the other women, felt that there were things about me, despite my female body, that were just not female” (16). This rejection James experienced in the lesbian community suggests that there existed some intangible difference between himself and the other lesbians that he socialized and identified with at the time. Despite the fact that James was biologically female and identified as a lesbian, he was still rejected from the community due to the presence of a certain maleness and masculinity in his gender presentation. It seems that transsexuals, even before their transition, have difficulty maneuvering through communities with ease as they are always left feeling like an outsider not completely accepted by the others. FTM transsexual, Loren, describes his feeling of loss of the women’s community after his transition, “The loss makes me mad, losing the women’s community. And the lack of acknowledgement. Transexuals are never really accepted by anyone” (17). Loren’s transition seems to have come with some negative as well as positive after-effects. Although Loren gained the ability to feel more whole and at ease in his own body, he also lost the sense of community and bond he had when he was a biological woman. It seems that once he transitioned, the women’s community no longer accepted him due to the physical changes he underwent to change sexes. Loren continues, “I was like a fly on the wall in my childhood world of girls. I grew up with girls, in their world, and I saw how they were treated. I didn’t feel like one of them, but I saw how women were disrespected, were diminished, and I haven’t forgotten that” (17). It seems the real struggle that Loren is attempting to communicate is despite the fact that the women’s community has rejected him since his transition, he still feels a strong bond with them and a deep understanding of their struggle in a male dominated world. The women’s community’s inability to understand his struggle as a transsexual seems to leave Loren as feeling neglected by the community and therefore eliciting these feelings of loss.

      Another FTM transsexual, Luis, describes his transition experience:

What I perceive and what my partner perceives now match up. Inside and outside, I’m a man…the surgeries made a huge difference for me. I had the genital surgery, not the full phalloplasty…I have days when I think about a phalloplasty, but I’d rather save my money…the gender issue isn’t at the center of my life. (15)

 The notion of the “gender issue” not being the center of Luis’ life seems difficult to understand at first considering he was willing to undergo painful and expensive procedures to transition, but it seems the entire transitioning process has given him an entirely new philosophy towards gender which he now sees as an “illusion.” Luis continues, “Now that I’ve been in a female body and in a male one and spent all this time thinking about this issue, I see that it’s nebulous. You can’t hold on to it and find meaning…we think we’ll ultimately find something clear and meaningful. And we don’t, we wont.” (16).  Luis seems to have realized, after embodying both sexes, that gender is something that doesn’t exist in reality, it seems to only exist in social constructions. Attempting to find meaning in one’s gender is futile as gender is not something black and white, and it isn’t something one can extract any real meaning out of.

The transitions of these men seem to have had very different affects on each individual. Each experienced their own losses and gains as a part of the transition process. For James and Loren, both seemed pleased with the transition physically and felt more comfortable and whole in their bodies but they also expressed a feeling of loss for communities, specifically women’s communities, they belonged to prior to their transitioning. The bond and respect they had for these communities did not leave them post-transition and the neglect they felt as a result of their transition left them feeling abandoned by their former communities. Luis seemed to have more internal struggle post transition as he still felt as though he had no clear answer or meaning for himself when it came to his own gender. Despite experiencing both the male and female bodies, Luis felt gender was something of an illusion and impossible to discern any meaning from, but he still felt more comfortable in his transition body.

It seems that technology both simplifies and complicates when it comes to gender reassignment surgery. These transitions reveal that technology enabled these individuals to achieve the gender that they felt matched the perception of themselves most, but it also complicated their perceptions of community and their notion of gender and its meaning entirely.



Bloom, Amy. Normal: transsexual CEOs, crossdressing cops, and hermaphrodites with

attitude. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. Print.           



Liz McCormack's picture

gender crossings in action

I resonate with your view of technology as having evolved with us and therefore having the potential to help us fully understand ourselves.  Since technology originates from us, it seems a very interesting version of the "mirror" we can look into to see ourselves.  And this reminds me of our discussion of information and meaning--the need for information to reflect (off of someone or even ourselves) to become meaningful via its transactional character. 

Your comparison of three transexuals and their experiences of the tensions between identity and community was an effective way to talk about this potential of technology but also its complexity.  The case studies along with your interpretations provided a compelling case for gender as a social construction.   I was also struck how just thinking about or imagining their gender change didn't come close to their actual experience of doing it.  Like so much in life, actions bring out the deepest engagements.