Skip to content

One Small Step for Trans, One Giant Eek for Mankind

What does it mean to be man or woman? Male or female? Western society has made it very clear that gender, though distinct from sex, is a binary means of categorizing individuals. For the majority of people, those who fall at the extreme ends of the spectrum—women and men—this is a system that generally works. What are society’s implications concerning the small percentage of people who fall at neither end? It is anticipated that the prevalence of transgender individuals is around 2%, but research admits that this may be grossly underestimated (Herman, 2006). Prevailing gender norms ostracize the transgender population to the point that some find physical modifications to be the only means of easing the discourse between individual and society; mind and body. Why should anyone feel the need to conform to one gender or the other? Can transgender be recognized as a third gender altogether? While technology deconstructs some aspects of gender norms, it is at the same time perpetuating others—this provides little room for the evolution of these strict norms in any society.

Gender and technology are defined along a broad spectrum. In exploring the intersection of technology and transgender in particular, I found that the influence of technology on gender spans a broad spectrum as well. The forms of technology frequently associated with the transgender population in my mind are hormone therapy and sex-reassignment surgery. It should be emphasized, however, that if a physical transition is desired, trans individuals are using standard technology that mainstream society uses daily; laser hair removal, make-up, and cosmetic surgery significantly assist the process. If trans individuals are transitioning, either fully or partially, are they not adhering to the gender norms of the desired gender? Is this not, in a sense, helping to perpetuate gender norms? Modifying anything in general inherently implies that something could be better, or was simply wrong.

Nevertheless, sex-reassignment surgery is a remarkable and accessible option for both male-to-female and female-to-male transgender individuals (Schneider et al., 2006). These surgeries span from mastectomies to phalloplasties to tracheal shaving; removing the breasts, constructing a penis, and reducing the Adam’s apple, respectively (Transgender Health, 2001). Though I would not argue that these surgeries de-construct the masculine or feminine gender in particular, technology of this sort de-constructs a specific concept of gender as a whole: its fluidity. Because of the strong binary system that gender is today, the idea that an individual is able to change their sex, and thus their gender, truly brings into question the fixedness of gender altogether. And not for one minute am I excusing myself from typical Western views—I see sex-reassignment surgery as ten times more remarkable than an individual being born transgendered. I am hopeful that society will soon be able to use this perspective of technology as a gate; maybe the raised awareness and acceptance of these controversial surgeries will help society to view gender as the continuum that it is.

On the other hand, similar technology that has become popular within the transgender population is a means of not embracing being born into a transgender body, but conforming to one gender or the other—which Western society highly suggests. Our in-class guest, Pemwrez2009, introduced the topic of “passing” to me, which I’ve found to be a major concern throughout transgender testimonials. In an article on the topic, a transgender individual asserts, “[passing] to me is the most important aspect of the whole thing. If you can’t do that, I don’t see the point of living this way” (Gagne et al., 1997). Riki Anne Wilchins, the founder of activist group Transsexual Menace, holds similar views. “People say I ‘transgress the gender system,’ but it is undeniably the case that it is the gender system which transgresses all over me” (Valentine & Wilchins, 1997). Despite the success of support groups like Transsexual Menace, some of these individuals still passionately feel that their condition is not accepted in society, and rightfully so. For those that cannot see themselves as ambigendered, or happily outside the gender binary (Gagne et al., 1997), there is very customary technology that can make passing as a specific gender much easier. These technologies—make-up application, hormone therapy, binding breasts with bandages, haircuts and the like—allow transgender individuals to be better seen by society as the gender they feel they are. It is this use of technology on gender that undoubtedly eases some frustration, but is simultaneously allowing gender norms to persist.

At times, technology is infinitely helpful in breaking down boundaries, and improving the daily lives of a group of individuals, or of the human race as a whole. Its benefits are praised above and beyond its shortcomings, but are the pros outweighing the cons? Although the intersection of technology and transgender individuals is no doubt an interesting realm, it seems that deep seeded societal standards will only tolerate a limited amount of lasting progression. Our class has agreed that technology generally “makes things easier”. Because of this, it is tempting to blame technology or turn to technology when something just isn’t working out. Technology, unfortunately, is for the most part not a stand-alone phenomenon lacking a point of origin. Instead, we should learn to question those who defined and exalted technology in the first place—our own society. The realization that there is an all-encompassing intersection between gender and technology for some may be eye-opening, but it is merely a first step.


Gagne, P., Tewksbury, R., & McGaughey, D. (1997, August). Coming out and crossing over: identity proclaimation in a transgender community. Gender and Society, 11(4), 478-508.

Herman, J. (2006, May 12). There are more of us than you think. Retrieved February 12, 2009, from Web site:

Schneider, M., et al. (2006). Answers to your questions about transgender individuals and gender identity [Brochure]. American Psychological Association. Retrieved February 20, 2009, from

Transgender Health. (2001, August 1). Retrieved February 12, 2009, from LGBTHealthChannel Web site:

Valentine, D., & Wilchins, R. A. (1997, Fall). One percent on the burn chart: gender, genitals, and hermaphrodites with attitude. Social Text, 52/53, 215-222.

2 Responses
  1. Anne Dalke permalink*
    February 16, 2009


    You’ve done a considerable amount of research here, in order to learn more about what it feels like to be transgendered, and what a difference various transsexual surgical procedures can make. What I think I see you doing is making a distinction between the usefulness of surgical technologies on the individual level, and the problematics of their larger, social effect: While a surgical change might well help individuals live more comfortably with themselves, it might also have the larger result of reinforcing the gender binary. Is that your argument?

    Given some of the very striking claims—such as “we are all transgender,” and that “we are all of us experiencing gender dysphoria,” that “none of us feels that we fit the norm”– that were made in class this past week, I was surprised to see you begin by saying that, although the gender system “generally works” for “the majority of people,” you are interested in its implications for “the small percentage” who don’t fall @ the extreme ends of the spectrum, that is, those who don’t clearly fit into the category of man or woman. I’d say, rather, that the phenomenon of transgender is significant precisely because it highlights the creakiness of the system that binds us all. As you say, trans individuals use the same technologies the rest of us do—laser hair removal, make-up, cosmetic surgery—to better “perform” our gender identities. As Judith Butler has so famously asked, if the gender difference is natural, why is so much energy spent in maintaining and reinforcing it?

    I also have some questions about the other question you raise as you end your essay; that is, “are the pros of technology outweighing the cons?” Tell me why you think that’s a useful question? Where does it take us? Seems to me we’re stuck w/ technology, and w/ its ongoing evolution—so the more pointed question must be how can we use it well.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. Tangents, found on the [transgender -------- atomic aliens] spectrum | Gender and Technology Spring 2009

Comments are closed.