Complex Personal Narratives

A few weeks ago, I had a guest speaker come into my Constructing Sexuality class.  His name was Daniel, and he was a FTM.  He began telling his personal narrative, describing how he perceived himself as more masculine than other females growing up.  He thought, at first, his “manliness” was caused by hanging out with more males than females.  His parents similarly attributed his masculinity to lack of female friends, and they tried to “socialize” him by enrolling him into female-only sports and activities.  By high school, he had started experimenting with the female gender – growing his hair long and dating men.  Because he felt comfortable around men and held similar interests with them, he said he never had a difficult time finding a boyfriend.  He had one serious relationship during that time and, after it ended, he realized he was more interested in women.  In college, he began exploring trans* issues and identifying as queer.  Then, when he realized he could identity as trans* without transitioning medically, he began adopting a trans* identity.  After college, he started binding his breasts and exclusively wearing men’s clothing.  He began hormones around seven months ago, and he said he was immediately more sexually attracted to men and sexually driven because of the testosterone.

While listening to Daniel’s story, I found it both intriguing and contradictory.  On the one hand, he is challenging traditional gender norms, describing his gender and sexual orientation as fluid, complex entities.  On the other hand, he falls into a Western paradigm crux, discussing how he shared similar “masculine” interests with other men, such as playing video games and watching action movies.  Additionally, he naturalized heterosexuality by attributing the female gender with dating men.  Thus, he ends up reinforcing a binary world, one that separates men and women and normalizes heterosexuality.

In addition, his described situation with testosterone reminds me of Patrick Califa’s story.  Califa described how after taking T, he would have physical sensations that “acquired a piquancy and an immediacy that is both entertaining and occasionally inconvenient” (437).  His desire for instantaneous, casual sex grew rapidly, and he said he suddenly understood sexual differences between the sexes after his intake of T.  Similarly, Daniel describes an intense, sexual urge for men and desire for casual sex.  What’s largely problematic about both accounts is that it presents women as sexless beings (who don’t have desires or impulses!) by attributing sex drive to an increased testosterone level.

This type of narrative is similarly highlighted in PLENTY of articles, especially in this cringe-worthy Men’s Health article called Why You’ve Always Been So Horny.  It “describes” how testosterone affects the body:

“The first [burst of T] produces a male brain: one that’s more interested in objects, actions, and competition. The left (parietal) lobe flourishes in the testosterone bath and helps you visualize objects in three dimensions (good for catching a football or watching a woman cross the street), and it boosts your aptitude in mathematics (that’s how you estimate that she’s about a 34DD).  In addition, testosterone beefs up your hypothalamus, the area of the brain that’s interested in sex. The hypothalamus is twice as large in men as it is in women.”

A part of me wants to believe this is a joke because of its BLATANT sexism but, alas, I honestly think this was printed.  Anyhow… while Daniel and Patrick clearly are complicating and challenging identity categories within their narratives [unlike this terrible, terrible article], I do think their attributions of sex drive to testosterone are perhaps troublesome and even reflect notes of biological essentialism.

-Anna Sekine


Politicizing the Trans* Experience

Last fall, I studied abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark and went to a discussion featuring a transsexual male named Warren.  He began by retelling his story of transitioning, accounting moments of depression and anger that ensued from his pre-operative body.  His personal narrative was painfully honest and focused largely around the tension he felt with trying to be actively perceived as male without appearing to follow traditional male gender roles because society thinks he should.  In other words, Warren believes the performance of gender comes with a checklist, stating one should do “x” in order to be perceived as “y.”  Because Warren challenges the traditional gender binary, his gender performance has been under high scrutiny especially during his transition.  People assume his decision to wear male clothing or lift weights is because he is trying to be seen as a man (and these are activities men do).  Warren, however, argues he does these things because he prefers a more masculine style of clothing and enjoys working out.  He said that if he ever decided to live his life as a woman, he would continue to wear men’s clothing because it’s what he likes.  Thus, Warren has to struggle every day with the blurry line between being seen as doing something to portray one’s gender and doing something to portray one’s freedom of choice.

I decided today to research Warren, since I knew he had an active YouTube presence.  With over 76 amazing videos (all describing his own trans* experience), I chose to look at one called “Trans* Stories on YouTube.”  Similar to the Serano text, he talks about how media projects a singular trans* story which often makes them the bud of jokes. Additionally, Warren discusses how documentaries about trans* folk are seldom ever created by transsexuals or transgender people. The trans* experience then becomes told by cisgender people… and then becomes watched by other cisgender people.  Therefore, a real trans* experience is hard to come by in popular culture, but YouTube acts as an outlet for transpeople to share their stories.  While the fact that YouTube creates communities and connects strangers is not new, I think what’s interesting is its potential to create a large enough social movement for the demedicalization of “gender dysphoria disorder” or the singular trans* experience. In order to remove the medical definitions associated with trans* folk, I feel like a strong leader(s) that has the power to politicize a social movement that challenges high powered groups, like medical professions or major institutions, is key. Is YouTube this leader?  Are the YouTube stars, like Warren, the ones with the potential power to move a collective group?  Or is it a combination of YouTube’s global power to reach people on a large-scale and the people’s individual power to be heard on a small, communal scale that make a successful demedicalization possible? I think it will be fascinating to watch (through the lense of Youtube) the political movement surrounding the trans* community unfold.

Check out his video here:

-Anna Sekine