Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Trans people: some further reflections

A previous posting, “Shifting Stigmas,” sought to explore the reasons for the fact that trans people have become more acceptable, perhaps even chic, in recent decades. As one commentator of the trans persuasion correctly pointed out, I have no subjective experience in this realm. That is indeed true, and I do not claim to speak for these individuals. Instead, what I am seeking is to explore some of the reasons for changing perceptions of these persons in our society. My interest is not how trans people perceive themselves--they have plenty of articulate spokespeople who can do this--but to inquire into the ways in which they are perceived. This undertaking should offer insights into the mechanisms producing social stigma, and how they are enhanced or reduced.

In “Shifting Stigmas” I noted how the postmodern fashion for blurring boundaries and focusing on transitivity has fostered the rise of trannie chic. I might have noted that this approach is not entirely new, but represents the revival, under changed circumstances, of a methodology that emerged in Germany a hundred years ago. There Magnus Hirschfeld and his associates published a scholarly periodical called the “Yearbook for Sexual Intermediates.” This category was designed to embrace a wide panorama of phenomena, including homosexuality, bisexuality, androgyny, cross dressing, and the paraphilias (then termed “fetishes).

Setting this historical precedent aside, I found some confirmation for my view of the grounds for the current fashion in an piece by Professor Jennifer Finney Boylan of Belgrade Lakes, Maine. Entitled “Is My Marriage Gay?” the piece appeared in the New York Times for May 12, 2009.

The writer begins by alluding to her personal narrative. In 1988, while Boylan was still a man, he married a biological woman, Deirdre Finney. “In 2000, I started the long and complex process of changing from male to female. Deedie stood by me, deciding that her life was better with me than without me. Maybe she was crazy for doing so; lots of people have generously offered her this unsolicited opinion over the years. But what she would tell you, were you to ask, is that the things that she loved in me have mostly remained the same, and that our marriage, in the end, is about a lot more than what genders we are, or were.”

Boylan goes on to say: “ I’ve been legally female since 2002, although the definition of what makes someone “legally” male or female is part of what makes this issue so unwieldy. How do we define legal gender? By chromosomes? By genitalia? By spirit? By whether one asks directions when lost?”
These questions exemplify a typical ploy of the postmodernist transitivity argument: blur the categories.

There is some interesting, though anecdotal legal evidence. “Gender involves a lot of gray area. And efforts to legislate a binary truth upon the wide spectrum of gender have proven only how elusive sexual identity can be. The case of J’noel Gardiner, in Kansas, provides a telling example. Ms. Gardiner, a postoperative transsexual woman, married her husband, Marshall Gardiner, in 1998. When he died in 1999, she was denied her half of his $2.5 million estate by the Kansas Supreme Court on the ground that her marriage was invalid. Thus in Kansas, any transgendered person who is anatomically female is now allowed to marry only another woman.

“Similar rulings have left couples in similar situations in Florida, Ohio and Texas. A 1999 ruling in San Antonio, in Littleton v. Prange, determined that marriage could be only between people with different chromosomes. The result, of course, was that lesbian couples in that jurisdiction were then allowed to wed as long as one member of the couple had a Y chromosome, which is the case with both transgendered male-to-females and people born with conditions like androgen insensitivity syndrome. This ruling made Texas, paradoxically, one of the first states in which gay marriage was legal.

“A lawyer for the transgendered plaintiff in the Littleton case noted the absurdity of the country’s gender laws as they pertain to marriage: “Taking this situation to its logical conclusion, Mrs. Littleton, while in San Antonio, Tex., is a male and has a void marriage; as she travels to Houston, Tex., and enters federal property, she is female and a widow; upon traveling to Kentucky she is female and a widow; but, upon entering Ohio, she is once again male and prohibited from marriage; entering Connecticut, she is again female and may marry; if her travel takes her north to Vermont, she is male and may marry a female; if instead she travels south to New Jersey, she may marry a male.”

“Legal scholars can (and have) devoted themselves to the ultimately frustrating task of defining “male” and “female” as entities fixed and unmoving. A better use of their time, however, might be to focus on accepting the elusiveness of gender — and to celebrate it.”

The operative term in this paragraph of Boylan’s essay is the term “frustrating.” Evidently she is using this term in a normative, not a descriptive sense. She would like the dichotomy between male and female to be terminally blurred. Will it be, though? Clearly the present situation offers considerable work for lawyers. But one is entitled to ask whether the general public is obliged to accept the abolition of the difference between males and females. In their own way postoperative transsexuals affirm the binary, because they wish to be classified unequivocally as belonging to the sex they have achieved. Boylan is in a minority here--a minority of a minority--because most postops do not want to give up the status they have so arduously achieved.

Moreover, for general purposes the Y-chromosome criterion works very well. If an individual has one or more Y chromosomes, the individual is a male; if the person lacks a Y chromosome, that person is a female. The brutal truth is that no amount of surgery can change what nature has bestowed in this regard.

In her piece Boylan suggests that there are more people like her in this country than we generally acknowledge. That may well be true. Yet there is a sense in which the postoperative trans people have attracted attention that is far out of proportion to their numbers in the total spectrum of transpeople.

From a purely lay standpoint, I have looked into the matter. Here is what I have tentatively concluded.

It seems that there are three main types of trans people.

(1) As I noted, those who get most of the attention are those who undertake some surgical somatic modification to achieve the physical characteristics of the opposite sex. Conventionally, this is regarded as a process that must go all the way to term. Increasingly, however, most seem to be just doing the top parts. Those born female may elect to have their breasts removed, while those born male may have breast augmentation (the so-called she-males). Such operations do not foreclose further steps of course, but it seems that many do not intend to do this. Women who have had only their breasts removed can still bear children, and some do--while still claiming to be “male.” She-males can still beget.

(2) The second type of trans person consists mainly of gay males who elect to dress mostly in women’s clothing. They find partners, also male, who are accepting of this predilection. Curiously, women who dress in male clothing are not generally classified as trans people. An exception was the recent experiment by the journalist Norah Vincent, who went undercover as a gender spy. Writing of the experience her book “Self-made Man” she describe how she dressed as a man, glued bits of stubble to her jaw, joined an all-male bowling league, and even went on dates. After eighteen months of this regimen she was relieved to return to her identity as a woman.

From American in the nineteenth and early twentieth century there are a number of accounts of women who lived most of their lives as men. They usually did this for professional reasons, as (for example) to join the military or to practice medicine. Nowadays, though, a woman dressing as a man produces little disparagement. By contrast, and trannie chic notwithstanding, there is still a frisson to be obtained when a man dresses as a woman.

(3) The third type, which is probably statistically the most numerous, consists of heterosexual men who like to wear women’s apparel. Some restrict themselves to wearing women’s undergarments; these individuals are undetectable to all but their wives. Others flock to the weeklong Fantasia Fairs sponsored by the Tri Ess group, and other such gatherings. There they can revel in cross dressing.

Many men in this third category choose to wear women’s clothing openly only for special occasions. There seems to be no substantial female counterpart. That is to say, women may don articles of men's clothing as they choose, but they are not generally making the same sort of statement as the heterosexual cross dressers do.



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