Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?” [1]

Deconstructing the Trans-normative.

As Foucault said ‘no aspect of reality should be allowed to become a definitive and inhuman law for us’.[2] By drawing from my own experiences, and highlighting some examples from popular media, this essay will illustrate the overarching heterogenic power and privileges that have succeeded in the new trans-normativity. A narrative that is dominating Trans* experiences and has arisen through the assimilation of transgender people into mainstream society.

A comparison of essentialist and constructionist theories surrounding transgender subjectivity exposes a need to employ understandings that have not been produced within cisnormative structures of understanding.

The ‘dominant assumptions in contemporary Western milieu align masculinities with male bodies and femininities to female bodies’ [3] and with this, my body is engraved by my histories, markings, makings and imprints.[4] As I trace these histories through my gender performances[5], I identify two key discourses that are reinforced by heterogenic notions, and have cemented trans-normative tropes. Those key discourses are “passing” and the “wrong body”[6] narrative.

1         PASSING

image001Fig. 1: BEFORE AND AFTER. Born as Kimberly Ann Sallans, Ryan Sallans changed from female to male over several years. His transformation completed in 2005. He’s now a LGBT rights advocate and delivers public speeches to educate people about transgender issues.[7] 

Socially constituted and regulated spaces are patrolled at the boarders, and regulated along lines of inclusion and belonging. As a result, passing has become a new social custom for the “other”[8] to gain acceptance. The first known reference to “passing” was in Nella Larsens, Passing published in 1929.[9] Larsen’s novel referred to the practice of racial “passing”. This cycle of assimilation of a minority group has occurred over and over throughout the centuries. Passing affords us the ability to walk the streets without fear, without discrimination and marginalisation. This can be seen in relation to gender “passing”, the ability to pass as your preferred gender without alienation or marginalisation. If we ascertain that gender is socially constructed, then the notion of passing is based on preconceived stereotypical performances of binary gender. Labels of respectability and status are rewarded to those whose performance is convincing, allowing them to pass through the heterosexual matrix to gain acceptance. But at what cost?

I perform a male role through social customs and practices, following a blueprint that has been produced by a heterogenic narrative.[10] My positionality as a passing male allows me to gain access and privilege to society based on my acceptance and appearance as a “white man”. No longer am I laying claim to being male but have gained the status of a “white man”.

This “passing” male subjectivity was attained through a medically constructed body. Gender markers such as chest, voice, and body hair are all self-made, constructed secondary sex characteristics of male. Hormone therapy and surgeries have created the authentic self I see in the mirror. This altered body allows me to conceal my history as female born, affords me access to privileges due to my “pass-ability” in society but in a state of undress, the strength of my “pass-ability” is destabilised.

image002Fig. 2: Brandon Teena, born Teena Renae Brandon (December 12, 1972 – December 31, 1993) [11]

The urgency to pass in society is amplified by examples of people who have been brutally killed for not “passing”. Like Brandon Teena who was raped and murdered for his inability to pass as male in a small town in the USA. By this we establish a distinct difference between the “Pass-able” vs “Unpass-able” while showing the consequences of being “unpass-able”.

2         The “wrong body” narrative

The “wrong body” narrative has been the basis for many trans* experiences and supports the “natural” understanding of gender being fixed. [12] “Wrongness here is understood in relation to how the body is gendered, connoting/signify that the body is wrongly gendered in relation to a self-identified gender identity.” [13] The powerful narrative statement, “I was born in the wrong body” has created a new generation of transgender youth starting medical intervention at ages that are contestable by many. This can be seen in documentaries like Louis Theroux “Transgender Kids” on BBC TWO, a documentary that shows the difficulties faced by such young children struggling with their gendered bodies.

image003Fig.3 Louis Theroux “Transgender Kids” on BBC TWO. [14]

The notion that trans* is socially constructed has been a controversial sticking point within the trans community, and has been described as transphobic. It is said that it Illegitimates people’s “real” lifelong struggles with their gender identity. However, I believe there is a need to step outside these arguments to create room to examine the effect on trans* identifying people who are governed by cisnormative frameworks. Within these frameworks the trans* body without medical interventions cannot fully assimilate/pass into society legally or socially. By withholding status of male/female until the individual adheres to the gender roles and gender aesthetics governed by social institutions. Granting social, medical and legal intuitions regulatory power over the body, removes the individuals agency, and creates marginalisation and oppression for anyone who doesn’t adhere to the rules of the binary gender roles. Via this governance of gender non-conforming bodies the trans-normate has been created. This perpetuates another casting of “other”[15] for anyone who doesn’t conform to these frameworks. The privilege, power and status gained by heterogenic subjectivity brings about showcasing the trans-normative as accepted identities.

3         Trans-normative Tropes

As seen in the article “10 Handsome Men (Who Were Born Female)” [16] the new trans-normate is exemplified in celebrities such as Buck Angel [17], Chaz Bonno and Caitlyn Jenna. All whom strengthen the ideal performance of male and female, no longer are they in the “wrong body” but through attainment of normal gender binary performances, and adherence to “cisnormative” structures, they gain status of their gender identity.

The popularity of a “wrong body” narrative serves to uphold a cisnormative standard and often works to reinforce the gender binary rather than to destabilise it.

Stories of hetropatriarchal trans-normative narratives dominate the internet. These stories of successful passing, and triumphs of acceptance, serve to reestablish the power of the heterosexual matrix. Specifically this can be viewed in Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover, emblazoned with the words “Call me Caitlyn”.

image005Fig.5: Vanity Fair’s front cover featuring Caitlyn Jenner with the words “Call me Caitlyn”[18]

image006Fig.6: ANZ employee MariMar’s Story.[19]

Yet another example is the ANZ YouTube video about “MariMar’s Story”[20], showing a transwoman’s acceptance in her work place, by having an inclusive and accepting employer in ANZ. On the ANZ website[21] there is a complete article[22] about MariMar, which neatly constructs her as the trans-normate using words like “beautiful” and “helpful”.

4         Destabilising Gender

In the early 1990’s Transgender people ‘were considered abject creatures in most feminist and gay or lesbian contexts’[23], and now over 25 years later, transgender experiences have been normalised, the “other”[24] falls on identities such as genderqueer and other non-binary gender embodiments, that don’t conform within medically constructed and regulated bodies.

image007Fig. 4: Alex Drummond, A Non-medically Constructed Transgender woman.[25]

Alex Drummond a transgender woman who lives as a woman without medical interventions. Showcases a new outlook of Transgender experience that does not align with conventional stereotypical gender roles. Alex Drummond states, ‘I was aware that I was unlikely ever to pass as natal female, so what I wanted to do is to see if it was possible to create another space.’[26] This shows a shift in destabilizing gender, no longer being held within the trans* “Pass-able” socially constructed gender binary, but in new spaces that exist outside the conventional gender roles and gender perceptions.

image008Fig.5: Darkmatter.[27]

At the forefront is “Darkmatter” a trans* south Asian creative collaboration who is also challenging trans-normativity, through acts of creative engagement over social media. Using Facebook Status updates as a political platform they issue questions like, “”How much do I want to be street harassed today?” [28] They show critical engagement with the status quo through resistance to cisnormative structures, challenging medically constructed bodies and questioning conformity.

Also present at the forefront is an alternative new creative expression, female drag queens, as seen in this YouTube video “Can’t Drag Us Down: Meet London’s Female Queens” [29] which brings new performances of gender embodiment through unconventional queer expressions. These acts highlight new considerations outside of the trans-normative tropes which seem to shadow the diversity of expression.

image009Fig.6: Revised Gender System.[30]

Gender pluralism as seen in Fig 6 has been equaled to degendering. This degendering is the goal of destabilising gender by which to create space for new identities free from discrimination without need to adhere to any scripts.

From this one should posit the understanding that gender is ‘complex, contextualised and changing intersection with other forms of social stratifications such as nationality, age, ability, race and ethnicity, and socio economic variables.’[31] It is not simply dressing in ones gender. Neither do hormones nor surgeries make gender. Gender is not easily reduced to simple male and female binary scripts, but is an unlimited multiplicity of many.[32]

Footnotes

[1] Book by Jeanette Winterson, 2012 “Why be Happy When You Could be Normal?”

[2] Michel Foucault, “Power, Moral Values, and the Intellectual.” Interview with Michael

Bess (November 3, 1980), http://www.michaelbess.org/foucault-interview/

[3] Jack Migdalek, “Aesthetics Of Gender Embodiment”. Alfred Deakin Research Institute 37, no. 2 (2012): 7.

[4] Michael Ryan, and Musiol Hanna, Cultural Studies. Malden, (MA: Blackwell Pub, 2008), 207.

[5] Judith Butler, Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. (New York: Routledge, 1990).

[6] Ulrica Engdahl, “Wrong Body” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, Duke University Press (2014): 267

[7] “Ryan Sallans,” ryansallans.com. accessed 17 September 2015, http://www.ryansallans.com/

[8] Michael Ryan, and Musiol Hanna, Cultural Studies. Malden, (MA: Blackwell Pub, 2008), 208.

[9] Nella Larsen, Passing, 1929.

[10] Alison Stone, An Introduction To Feminist Philosophy, (Cambridge: Polity, 2007), 61.

[11] “In loving memory of Brandon Teena” Remember Brandon Teena, accessed 18 September 2015, http://rememberbrandonteena.webs.com/

[12] Ulrica Engdahl, “Wrong Body” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, Duke University Press (2014): 267

[13] Ibid.

[14] Louis Theroux “Transgender Kids” on BBC TWO.

[15] Michael Ryan, and Musiol Hanna, Cultural Studies. Malden, (MA: Blackwell Pub, 2008), 208.

[16] Beverly Jenkins, “10 Handsome Men (Who Were Born Female),” Oddee, accessed 17 September 2015, http://www.oddee.com/item_98038.aspx.

[17] Beverly Jenkins, “10 Handsome Men (Who Were Born Female),” Oddee, accessed 17 September 2015, http://www.oddee.com/item_98038.aspx.

[18] Bissinger, Buzz, Annie Leibovitz, and Jessica Diehl. “Caitlyn Jenner: The Full Story,” Vanity Fair, accessed 19 September 2015, http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2015/06/caitlyn-jenner-bruce-cover-annie-leibovitz.

[19] ANZ, “Marimars Story,” accessed 20 September 2015, https://yourworld.anz.com/social-good/marimars-story/.

[20]ANZ “MariMar’s Story,” YouTube Video, 1:00, Posted by ANZ on 27 July, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRLmKLQOlVk

[21] ANZ, “Marimars Story,” accessed 20 September 2015, https://yourworld.anz.com/social-good/marimars-story/.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Susan Stryker, “Transgender Studies: Queer Theory’s Evil Twin,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 10, no. 2 (2004): 212 – 215.

[24] Michael Ryan, and Musiol Hanna, Cultural Studies. Malden, (MA: Blackwell Pub, 2008), 208.

[25] Patrick Strudwick, “This Trans Woman Kept Her Beard And Couldn’t Be Happier,” Buzzfeed, accessed 17 September 2015, http://www.buzzfeed.com/patrickstrudwick/this-transgender-woman-has-a-full-beard-and-she-couldnt-be-h#.blALzD4ewn.

[26] Patrick Strudwick, “This Trans Woman Kept Her Beard And Couldn’t Be Happier,” Buzzfeed, accessed 17 September 2015, http://www.buzzfeed.com/patrickstrudwick/this-transgender-woman-has-a-full-beard-and-she-couldnt-be-h#.blALzD4ewn

[27] Darkmatter Poetry, “Home,” accessed 20 September 2015, http://darkmatterpoetry.com.

[28] See Appendix 1. (p.14)

[29] Broadly “Can’t Drag Us Down: Meet London’s Female Queens,” YouTube Video, 7:39, (Posted by Broadly on 16 Sep, 2015, https://youtu.be/VJYaq_XnjaQ

[30] Surya Monro, Gender Politics, (London: Pluto Press, 2005), 38.

[31] Surya Monro, Gender Politics, (London: Pluto Press, 2005), 35.

[32] Jack Halberstam (Formerly Known as Judith), In A Queer Time And Place. (New York: New York University Press, 2005)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  1. ANZ, “Marimars Story,” accessed 20 September 2015, https://yourworld.anz.com/social-good/marimars-story/.
  2. ANZ “MariMar’s Story,” YouTube Video, 1:00, Posted by ANZ on 27 July, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRLmKLQOlVk
  3. Broadly “Can’t Drag Us Down: Meet London’s Female Queens,” YouTube Video, 7:39, posted by “Broadly” on 16 Sep, 2015, https://youtu.be/VJYaq_XnjaQ
  4. Butler, Judith. Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
  5. Engdahl, Ulrica. “Wrong Body” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, Duke University Press (2014): 267 – 269.
  6. Foucault, Michel. “Power, Moral Values, and the Intellectual,” Interview with Michael Bess (November 3, 1980), IMEC (Institut Mémoirs de l’Édition Contemporaine) Archive folder number FCL2. A02-06.
  7. Halberstam, Jack (Formaly Known as Judith). In A Queer Time And Place. New York: New York University Press, 2005.
  8. “In loving memory of Brandon Teena” Remember Brandon Teena, 18 September 2015, http://rememberbrandonteena.webs.com/
  9. Jenkins, Beverly. “10 Handsome Men (Who Were Born Female),” Oddee, 17 September 2015. http://www.oddee.com/item_98038.aspx..
  10. Migdalek, Jack. “Aesthetics Of Gender Embodiment,” Alfred Deakin Research Institute 37, no.2 (November 2011):1 – 14.
  11. Monro, Surya. Gender Politics. London: Pluto Press, 2005.
  12. Phillips, R. 2014. ‘Abjection’. TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 1 (1-2): 19-21. doi:10.1215/23289252-2399470.
  13. Ryan, Michael, and Hanna Musiol. Cultural Studies, 205 – 216. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2008.
  14. Stone, Alison. An Introduction To Feminist Philosophy, 61 – 72. Cambridge: Polity, 2007.
  15. Strudwick, Patrick. “This Trans Woman Kept Her Beard And Couldn’t Be Happier,” Buzzfeed, 17 September 2015, http://www.buzzfeed.com/patrickstrudwick/this-transgender-woman-has-a-full-beard-and-she-couldnt-be-h#.blALzD4ewn
  16. Stryker, Susan. “Transgender Studies: Queer Theory’s Evil Twin,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 10, no. 2 (2004): 212 – 215.

APPENDIX 1

Status Update by Darkmatter on June 7th 2015.

The story goes something like this:

Every morning when I wake up and look at my closet I ask myself, “How much do I want to be street harassed today?”

This means I usually gravitate away from the skirts and dresses and move begrudgingly toward the more conventionally “masculine” clothing. I consider for a moment how peculiar it feels that I have been made to find safety and security in masculinity — this thing that has been such a site of violence and anxiety in my past.

This weekend I did the same. I woke up. I looked in the closet and I saw this new dress I got on sale. But after I put it on I knew that I would have to pay for it, anyways.

. . .

At my performance downtown in the evening everyone told me that they loved this dress and remarked on how fabulous I looked. I did not mention the stares, the slurs, the panic, the terror. I smiled. said, “T H A N K  Y O U.”

After the show I was walking home with one of my trans* sisters and a man rolled down his window and screamed, “What the fuck are you faggots wearing!!”

There is something particularly unsettling about being harassed right outside of your home. Like that time on my way home, this man screamed, “You better take off that dress, or else!” and I walked faster and faster and didn’t look back while his girlfriend laughed at me. I will never forget her laugh. It left a stain on that dress, stubborn and permanent like wine.

I remember that for so many of us home is not that sacred place away from violence, it is actually that place constituted by violence. A type of violence that holds the paradox of being both perpetual and surprising. Keeps you on your toes.

That night I started thinking about how so many femmes I know are literally attacked for loving ourselves. How so many of us are harassed most on the days we think we look best. How dangerous and lethal self-love can be.

I started thinking about how so many narratives in our culture are obsessed with “authenticity.” How we as trans* people are celebrated because we have “embraced our truth.”  And I think about what this does: how it standardizes visibility as authenticity, how it understands authenticity outside of violence, how it erases all of the calculations we must make to keep ourselves safe and whole.

Can we hold that on the days we are most authentic, that we are most ourselves, that we love ourselves the most — are the days that we are most terrified and afraid? Can we hold that not everyone can nor should afford to be “authentic,” because it means that they will be turned away from gender segregated bathrooms, shelters, parties, lovers. Can we challenge the hierarchy that’s drawn between those who are “out” and “authentic” and those who are not — as if these distinctions don’t have everything to do about race, class, security, home, terror, history. Can we be more critical of a culture that tells us that we are brave for being ourselves instead of dismantling the structures that made that so impossible to begin with?

I wonder whether we are ready to be more compassionate and appreciative for the ways that we have come to disguise ourselves. Can we find resistance in our duplicity and our disingenuousness? Can we remember the ways in which being inauthentic has kept us alive?

Today I woke up and looked at my closet and I remembered the street outside and that man and his girlfriends laughter so I put on a button down shirt and a beard and some pants and I have never felt more like a woman in my entire life.