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Transsexuality: The Conflict between Individual Empowerment and Systemic Disempowerment

Melinda Canter

Gender and Technology

February 13, 2009

Transsexuality: The Conflict between Individual Empowerment

and Systemic Disempowerment

As Anne and Laura explained the post-it activity to our class last week, I immediately knew I would have a hard time deciding what colors to stick under some of the procedures. While it was pretty easy for me to choose light blue for make-up and green for braces, it took a lot longer to decide what to pick for “genital surgery”; while it is not something I would consider doing for myself at all (counting out the bottom end of the scale), I could not honestly choose teal (“I feel completely neutral about this or don’t know how I feel. It might depend on the situation”) or purple (“I’m somewhat disturbed and probably wouldn’t do this myself, but would be okay if friends or family did it, but I still feel pretty squeamish about it”), or an even more disturbed red. A more accurate answer for me would have been “I am not disturbed by this, and would support friends and family who choose to do this, but I would not do it myself”; although I cannot personally identify with feeling such a great dissonance between my sex and gender, I can see the ways in which this type of surgery could be empowering to someone who does feel that way. However, the relationship that an individual develops between his/her gender and biological sex is both psychological and social – and I do find some the social implications of transsexuality, as pointed out by Sandy Stone in “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto,” to be somewhat problematic. On these two different levels, this type of genital surgery for the purpose of transitioning can be interpreted as either empowering or disempowering. My question is whether, if both of these interpretations are true, it is possible to make a general statement about the potential of transsexuality to be empowering or disempowering to the individual.

Psychologically, the choice to surgically alter one’s body in this way can allow an individual to have a sense of agency over his/her body and place in the social structure; it can allow him/her to take control over how he/she feels and how he/she is seen by others. Frequently, as Sandy Stone points out, “the most critical thing a transsexual can do, the thing that constitutes success, is to “pass”… to live successfully in the gender of choice, to be accepted as a ‘natural’ member of that gender” (Stone 334). By utilizing the technology of changing one’s biological sex, one can achieve a psychological sense of satisfaction and consistency. Essentially, our society’s gender binary perpetuates the idea that sex and gender are the same thing – that having female biology is the same thing as conforming to the ideals of what it means to be a woman, and that if one is born with a particular biology, one cannot truly enact, or “be” the other gender unless one’s biology reflects that choice. Since society has such stringent ideals and definitions of what it means to be a man or woman, and leaves little room for fluidity, transsexuality allows one to more closely align one’s biology with a more desirable, yet seemingly unobtainable image. In that sense, surgically altering one’s sex can be a way of rebelling against that idea, of re-engineering and re-constructing one’s body so as not to be limited by the common (but to me, problematic) idea that we have no control over our gender since it is something with which we are born. Stone believes that “transsexuals who pass seem able to ignore the fact that by… forgoing physical and subjective intertextuality, they have foreclosed the possibility of authentic relationships,” and that their “relationships begin as lies”; however, I would contend that the person who undergoes this surgery might feel as though his/her surgically altered body is more honest to who he/she is than is his/her original biology, and thus more honest to the outside world as well (Stone 335).* By enabling a person to “pass” as his/her desired gender, transsexuality has the potential to be empowering, and allows for the individual to take control within a system that leaves room for little acceptable variability.

On a larger social level, however, transsexuality can also be interpreted as reinforcing the gender binary system that makes people feel disempowered on an individual, psychological level in the first place. The “clear” division between male and female, and the ideals and stereotypes that go along with those gender identities, are so thoroughly ingrained in our society and culture that they undoubtedly shape our psychological relationship between sex and gender as well – but Stone contends that an individual’s choice to change his/her sex does not institute the larger scale change in the system itself that is necessary. This is where I am conflicted as well: I am attracted to the idea of transsexuality as agency, but I am also troubled by the necessity for transsexuality in the first place. I wonder whether, if we were not led to believe that a person must have a particular set of biological characteristics in order to perform a particular gender identity (or if the concept of “gender” as we know it didn’t exist at all), we would feel less pressure to change our biology to more closely align with who we “really” are. In her article, Stone argues that transsexuality allows people to gain “acceptance in society,” but that “the ability to authentically represent the complexities and ambiguities of lived experience” is lost and replaced by “[a story] that supports the old constructed positions” (Stone 333). In a sense, it is true that choosing to change one’s sex is a way of altering oneself in order to fit into a pre-existing, limiting structure that we would probably be better off without in the first place – but I would argue that saying that one should not change his/her sex so as to maintain a space for this complexity is a disempowering statement in its own right. The tangible reality of our social system does not encourage us to strive for that kind of complexity, or to be open about it. Stone believes that “the highest purpose of the transsexual is to erase him/herself, to fade into the ‘normal’ population as soon as possible”; yet I do not see how this goal differs so greatly from practices in which cisgendered people engage, such as wearing make-up or clothing that marks them as “normal” in relation to a social group of choice (Stone 333).

Back in Critical Feminist Studies last year, I found myself caught up with a quote by Linda Kauffman, in which she states that she “never thought feminism was about happiness, [but]… about justice”; again, I find myself conflicted over whether a person living in the present should be chastised for making a choice that allows him/her to be happier and live a life more consistent with his/her desires and expected to prioritize the political above the personal (Kauffman 274). To me, it is certainly understandable that, within this system, people feel that they are unable to be who they truly are – and I say, by all means, do what you can to shake up the system! But at the same time, Stone’s argument makes me question whether transsexuality is shaking up the larger social system in a way that will make a long-term change in the gender binary system. While the choice to physically transition may help the individual feel more satisfied him/herself, it continues to feed a system that will make others in the future feel the same way. I do not think that the answer is to force people to embrace complexity if doing so does not make them happy; I do not think that responsibility for the lack of change in the system should be placed on the shoulders of those who are attempting to find their place in a system that does not encourage difference. However, now that I have reached the end of my (lengthy) paper, I still do not know what a good resolution would look like. As usual, I will just throw my hands up and say that people should be allowed to do whatever makes them happy as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else – though I am no longer entirely sure whether transsexuality is truly one of those things. At the end of her essay, Stone says that “although individual change is the foundation of all things, it is not the end of all things. Perhaps it’s time to begin laying the groundwork for the next transformation”; is this is true, then what next step can we take (Stone 336)? What would this next transformation look like, and how can we get there from where we are now without denying happiness and psychological well-being to any group of people?

* Of course, this is merely my own speculation of how this choice might psychologically affect a person – I don’t at all claim to fully understand the experience of being transgendered or transsexual.

One Response
  1. Anne Dalke permalink*
    February 16, 2009


    I agree: the conundrum that stumps you here is directly analogous to the one we worried over @ such length in that “evolving technology” course on Critical Feminist Studies we did together last year: whether we’re talking about–and should be working towards—happiness or justice, and whether we can legitimately ask individuals to forgo the first in order to work towards the latter.

    As usual, my way out of unanswerable binaries is to refuse the binary, and I’m wondering if Stone hasn’t laid out a path for us here. I hear her saying not that individuals shouldn’t undergo transition if they think it will make them happier, but “only” that they shouldn’t try to “pass,” as a result, by “erasing” the complexities of their life stories, of the narratives that account for who they now are.

    So the answer (okay, one possible answer) might lie not in the areas of surgical intervention or political action that we’ve been examining, but rather smack in your own arena: that of writing, of storytelling, of constructing complex narratives that attempt to account for the multiplicity of forms of being that each of us occupy in the course of our lives. Writing up rich psychological accounts, that will contribute to the social narratives we all need to imagine a wider variety of ways of being in the world—how might that work, as a way forward?

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