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Understanding Transsexuality

hpolak's picture

Hilary Polak

Intro to Critical Feminist Studies

October 3, 2008

Understanding Transsexuality

            Inthe book Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides,the main character Cal says, “contrary to popular opinion, gender was not allthat important.” To Cal and his family, this statement was true. Cal discoveredthat he would remain essentially the same person, with the same morals,opinions and sense of humor. However, this idea is not universal to all people.There are some individuals to whom gender is extremely important, such astranssexuals. To some extent I share Cal’s opinion. Until taking this class, Iabsolutely believed that a person is a person, and their personality and spiritare the same no matter what physical parts they have. During the course of thisclass, I was able to read about and hear from individuals who felt gender wasan integral part of their identity. Transsexuals believe that the genderassignment they were given at birth does not match their personal view ofthemselves. I have been struggling to understand the details of transsexuality,and why it is so much more difficult to accept transsexuals in society thanintersex people.

            Forthe most part, I have thought that transsexuals feel like they are a personplaced in the wrong body. I considered the word “transsexual” to mean anindividual who is in the process of changing from one sex to the other. Thevery sound of the word seems to have a transitional or shifting aspect. Iconsidered changing not only to mean aesthetic changes, but also physicalchanges. For example, for a female to male transsexual, I assumed that personwould be undergoing surgery to construct male genitals, take testosterone, andhave a double mastectomy. Once the person completed this procedure, they wouldbe considered a man, and not a transsexual. What I have come to realize is thatthis is a very narrow-minded view. There is so much more gray area within therealm of transsexuality, just as there is in every area of life. Transsexualitydoes not necessarily denote the change from male to female or vice versa, buttranssexuality acknowledges the spectrum of sexes and allows for variation.

            When Pemwrez2009 came to speak in our class, I learned so much from him.Hearing his story about how his identity changed was fascinating and reallyhelped me to better understand the diversity within transsexuality, and alsowhy it can be so hard for society to accept. I have always wondered, and stillwonder, how people know something is not right with their gender. Pemwrez2009 addressed this by using his own terminology: “textbook trannies.” He said thatthese people just know from the minute they can think that they are not in theright body. Pemwrez2009 said it is actually much more complicated than this formost transsexual individuals. For example, Pemwrez2009 first identified as a lesbian. He always embraced his femininity as a girl, and continues to do sonow. The way he determined that he was not really female was through sex. Lifeas a transsexual has been difficult for Pemwrez2009, in his home city of New York and even at Bryn Mawr. He said he has a goal of “passing’ aesthetically as amale in society.

In the article Towarda Theory of Gender by Suzanne Kessler andWendy McKenna, they also address this concept of passing. They give a definitionof passing by saying, “To be successful in one’s gender is to prevent any doubtthat one’s gender is objectively, externally real.” In a sense, this issomething that everyone deals with every day. Women are constantly trying tolook more feminine by wearing more mascara, or strutting in high heels. Menhead to the gym and lift heavy weights to gain more muscle in order to affirmtheir masculinity. But to pass as a transsexual is considerably more difficultin our society. In fact, the article continues to state, “Given basic trustregarding gender, successfully passing transsexuals, by virtue of beingsuccessful, will be impossible to locate.” The authors say that it is nearlyunachievable for any transsexual to confirm their gender as being real accordingto society’s standards. I am not sure how I feel about this declaration. Insome senses, I agree. Society is extremely intolerant of many people and thingsthat are different, so I can understand why Kessler and McKenna made thisstatement about gender. However, to what extent should anyone, transsexualsincluded, be worried about passing? How necessary is it really? I do not knowthe answer.

            Another area that Pemwrez2009 illuminated for me was my former conception that in order to fulfill the transitional aspect of being a transsexual, one needed to change physically as well as aesthetically. Pemwrez2009’s personal decision is to have adouble mastectomy; take testosterone injections; and alter his outerappearance, for example cut his hair, have his septum pierced, etc. He is nothaving any bottom surgery. He essentially believes that for him to be male, hedoes not need to construct a physical penis. He views the parts he already hasas masculine.

            Thismay be one of the reasons why it is so incredibly difficult for society toaccept transsexual individuals. Transsexuals do not fit the traditional mold ofmale or female. Also, people rely heavily on visual cues, so when theappearance of a person is not totally compatible with the gender identity thatperson possesses, a stranger might be confused. And when people are confused,they can be cruel.

            Generally,society tends not to be as confused about intersex individuals as they areabout transsexuals. Intersex can be defined as a person whose sex chromosomes,genitalia, and/or secondary sex characteristics are determined to be neitherexclusively male nor female. An intersex person may have biological qualitiesof both the male and female sexes. Transsexuality is a condition in which aperson identifies with a physical sex different from the one with which theywere born. The main difference according to these definitions is the biologyfactor. I think this is crucial as to why it is easier for society as a wholeto accept intersex individuals more than transsexual individuals. Intersex is“clear cut;” there are biological factors that explain the condition. Thereasons seem more definitive and real. Transsexuality is more vague; it doesnot necessarily have biological reasons, but instead it is based upon thoughtsin the mind. This is much harder to grasp for most people in our society. Onestudent in the class believes that transsexuality should be considered aDisorder of Sexual Development (DSD) just as intersex is. He said these changesoccur in the mind, which is a part of the brain, which any scientist wouldacknowledge is a biological part of our bodies. I do not think I agree withthis statement. I do believe transsexuality merits the same seriousness that isgiven to the intersex condition, but I do not think they are equal in terms oftheir explanations.

            Idid some research, and I found that transsexual individuals may not be entirelyunderstood or received in our society, but there are other societies in whichthey are. In various Native American tribes, there are the Two-Spirit people.These people have a physically male or female body but possess both a male andfemale spirit. Their dress is usually a mixture of traditionally male andtraditionally female pieces. They have distinct gender and social roles intheir tribes, and perform specific social functions in their communities. Thereare also the Muxes of Mexico who dress, apply makeup, and tweeze their eyebrowslike the most feminine women. The word “Muxe” is a word in the Zapotec languagethat literally means “gay man,” but culturally translates to mean a thirdgender. The Muxes bear little similarity to gay men in America. They excel in “women’swork,” such as designing festival gowns, embroidering blouses, and making theelaborate decorations that adorn parade floats. One interesting feature of theMuxes is that they are generally not attracted to men. Instead, theyparticipate in women’s crafts and take care of their mothers for the rest oftheir lives. It was especially interesting for me to explore transsexuality inother cultures, because all I have been exposed to is my own. Perhaps thisevidence proves that it will not always be easier to accept intersexuals, butone day transgendered individuals will also enjoy the same tolerance.

For the past fewweeks this class and our course materials have fascinated me. I am hungry formore material and I cannot seem to stop talking about our topics outside of theclassroom. Writing this paper helped me to explore some of my confusions aboutintersex and transsexuality. There is still much for me to learn, but I feel asthough I have a better understanding. I believe one reason as to why it iseasier for our society to accept intersex individuals more than transgenderedindividuals may be because intersex provides biological evidence. Another causemight be that since we rely so much on visual cues, when people are unable todetermine the gender of someone simply by glancing at them they becomebewildered. I still do not comprehend certain issues within transsexuality. Doesthe concept of transsexuality attempt to allow for the choice of a gender thatis not necessarily neither male nor female? Or does it simply offer the freedomto choose?


Anne Dalke's picture


What you've done here, hpolak, is trace your own growing understanding of the complexities of transsexuality, including both its difference from intersex, and the larger implications it may have for our understanding (and policing) of the categories of gender, generally. Though your title is "Understanding Transsexuality," you conclude by saying that you "still have much to learn." I like the humility of that final move....

...and/yet I find myself also wanting you to stake some claim @ this point, based on what you do know. I'm looking for a thesis here, a place where you make an assertion.

Is it your statement that intersex, which involves "clear cut...biological factors," is socially more acceptable than transsexuality, which is "based upon thoughts in the mind?" "I do not think they are equal in terms of their explanations," you say. Can you talk about that some more? Your phrasing makes me think of "separate but equal" facilities, once prevalent in this country, that turned out not to be "equal" after all. Do you mean "different but not equal"? Not identical, but also not equal?

You base your current report on Pemwrez2009's visit to our class, and on the Kessler and McKenna article. There's much more material to explore, if you want to keep on learning in this direction: the remainder of the essays from The Transgender Reader (included in our packet); the website prepared by
Arthur Robinson Williams, My Right Self; and an hour-long 2005 film called "Transparent," that I've just discovered: it is a documentary about 19 men who gave birth to children. So if you want to talk about biology....