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


“Trans 100” list and “Batgirl #19”

Due to the fact that there are no assigned readings for this week I decided to scour the web and enlist my roommates in helping me find a topic to write about for my blog post. Thankfully it all paid off! My wonderful roommate and best friend sent me to two websites this past weekend regarding the “Trans 100” list and the new “Batgirl #19” issue which just came out last week.

First, I’ll talk about the list which  “recognizes the work of 100 transgender individuals, both pioneers and emerging voices, who are working to break down stereotypes and show the true diversity of the transgender community.” This list is filled with fantastic people! They are doing great things for the trans community as well as society as a whole. What is even more amazing is my roommate’s cousin Jaan Williams was selected as one of the “Trans 100”! Jaan is a transman, activist, and “a program manager at the Victory Fund and Institute who runs the organization’s Victory Congressional Internship and assists with the Presidential Appointments Project.” (As a side note, Jaan married his long time love Pri at the beginning of March <3) It thrills me to know someone who is making such a difference!! Things like this restore my faith in humanity and the hope that more people could come to understand the immense amount of ignorance surrounding non-normative lifestyles. 

Now onto “Batgirl #19″…which even without mentioning the new transgender aspect of the comic, is GREAT. Who doesn’t like a superhero who has a paralyzing accident, heals, then continues to kick ass?? Outside of the awesomeness of Batgirl, there is a new twist to the comic which has come at a great time given current news and events (part of which being the “Trans 100” list). According to the Q&A with the writer of the comic, “Comics have, of course, always been incredibly LGBTQ-friendly, and there are many major gay characters, but Alysia will be the first (reality based) transgender character in a mainstream comic.” Alysia is Barbara Gordon’s (Batgirl) roommate in the series. When asked about the treatment and acceptance of LGBTQ characters in comics, Gail Simone (the writer) said, “I actually feel like we have a ways to go. There’ve been some wonderful steps forward lately, even in mainstream comics like “Batwoman” and “Runaways,” all of whom have LGBTQ characters in starring roles. But it wasn’t that long ago that any mention of sexuality was outright forbidden in mainstream comics at all. We have some catching up to do. But there’s a large LGBTQ readership in comics, the audience is hugely diverse. It’s wonderful. Our common language is nerdhood. I love that. We may come from different continents, but dammit, we can recite the Green Lantern Oath! It’s pretty great to see LGBTQ characters being accepted widely, it shows that this stuff is way, way overdue.”

I have to agree with Simone, this stuff is extremely overdue! I’m just as excited, if not more, about Alysia’s background and story coming into the series as I am about the “Trans 100” list. I feel like these are huge steps forward especially with so much hate and ignorance being spewed daily. We need more positive non-normative stories and happenings like these to be published and widely spread! So please read and share these links with your friends, heck even read the comic! People need to know the great things going on in the world and the media!

-Jocelyn Crizer

I may shut the world out, but this does not make it go away

In “Boys of the Lex,” Gayle Salamon discusses the ways in which gender and gender expression are perceived. Salamon states, “To offer the category of real gender in an attempt to discipline what are perceived as the excesses of theoretical gender is to domesticate gender as it is lived and to deny its considerable complexity, which often outpaces our language to describe it.” (72) In other words, gender is both internal and external, and usually the social is inextricably linked to the personal.

This chapter is an attempt by Salamon to discuss the difficulties of labeling gender a ‘social construct’ while simultaneously showing that it is. Salamon quotes Jason Cromwell: “’If gender were only important in social situations, then transpeople would not know that their gender is different than what societies dictate they should be according to their bodies.’” (80) The idea of gender as a social construct that is only relevant when other people are present does not take into account what happens when we are alone. We do not stop presenting when no one else is around. Some of us may act differently under public scrutiny than we do at home, but this does not mean we become nothing.

One of Salamon’s and other trans* theorists’ problem with gender as construction is the fact that it only allows for men and women. Gender is not thought of in terms of language, because it is seen as a personal, political, or social decision. But without looking toward language, we can only ever have two allowable modes of gender expression. Queer communities across the globe have been attempting to gain recognition for third gender pronouns such as sie and hir, but generally speaking they have not been taken up. When Sweden attempted to add the gender neutral “hen” to its online dictionary, not even the official print dictionary, it was lambasted as “feminist activists who want to destroy our language.”

Salamon says in this chapter, “A reading of gender…that focuses exclusively on the agency of the individual misses this entire matrix of power in which gender takes shape.” (80) Individuals choose in which way they express themselves and their gender, but this expression happens in conjunction with the society surrounding them and the very language with which it is expressed.

-Caitlyn Smallwood

Transsexuality in Iran

Throughout this class we have covered how trans-identities inform other aspects of the self through politics, privilege, and a few other ways. One thing that we haven’t discussed is the how the matter of faith often intersects with trans-identities. This week is the first time that faith (or to be more precise, religion) has been worked into a trans-narrative.  I personally find this fascinating, as most people are under the impression that most religions are against any form of trans-expression, even though that might be entirely accurate.

In Be Like Others, we see how religion intersects with trans-identities in positive, negative, and fairly neutral ways. The documentary takes place in Iran, an Islamic state, meaning that the majority of its laws come directly from the Quran. Since there is no religious restriction on corrective surgery, the Iranian government, medical professionals, and many trans* individuals have interpreted that as the Quran being okay with medically transitioning. This has worked itself into the legal realm in Iran, where the government will pay up to half the cost of the surgery for those who need and will change their birth certificate accordingly.

While this is all well and good, there are some seriously problematic issues in this practice, primarily when regarding people who do not wish to medically transition. In Iran, if trans-folk are approved for SRS then they must undergo treatment as soon as possible. There is no other option. Trans-folk cannot opt out of surgery nor can they openly identify as genderqueer or a non-binary gender. Doing so not only opens them up for harassment, but also legal action because they might be considered a homosexual, which is illegal in Iran. In short, while the medicalization process has done some good for some trans-folk in Iran, the fact that there is a lack of choice in the transition process is extremely problematic. It is great that trans-folk will not have legal action taken against them for how they identify (unlike the rest of the Iranian LGB community), the fact that their identification is treated as a disorder that must be cursed is asinine.

A simple example of why this policy is problematic is this story. The gist of this article is that SRS are often performed haphazardly and that the mental health of trans-folk both before and after SRS seldom goes addressed. A lot of trans-folk experience a great amount of trauma do to poor treatment from their surgeons and therapists. There are many cases of sexual harassment and assault wherein therapists coerce their patients into having sex with them or their surgeons rape them because they know that it is likely that no one will listen to them.

It’s all very interesting how such a religious government can be okay with performing SRS surgeries, yet still have so many issues when dealing with these individuals. What seems like an open-minded interpretation of religious law has turned into yet another measure for the government to exercise control over it’s people. Trans-folk do not have control over their bodies, their identification, or their future in Iran – the government does.

– Kris Krumb

Trans* realities in Iran

Afsaneh Najmabadi’s article Verdicts of Science, Rulings of Faith, deals with the realities of trans* people in Iran, namely that transsexual/gender identities are accepted by the government as long as a sex-change operation is had. She also makes a point of connecting medical and religious ideas of transexuality.

She begins her paper by saying, “For legal and medical authorities in Iran, sex-change is explicitly framed as the cure for a diseased abnormality, and on occasion it is proposed as a religio-legally sanctioned option for heteronormalizing people with same-sex desires and practices.” (3-4) However, she also warns against relying solely on this explanation of Iranian trans* identities. It is often said that transsexual/gender identities are legal because of the illegality of homosexuality, but this basic, governmental explanation ignores the work done by trans* activists in Iran.

Najmabadi also points out the linking in Iran of transsexuals and homosexuality, despite the belief that trans* identities were heteronormalizing: there was a “…disarticulation of transgender/sexuality from the intersex, and its re-articulation with homosexuality. Transgender/sexuality became re-conceived as a particularly extreme manifestation of homosexuality.” In Iran this is problematic because of the illegality of homosexual behavior. “…sexual deviance was diagnosed as potentially criminal…male homosexuality [was thought of] as almost always violent, akin to rape, prone to turn to murder, and almost always aimed at the ‘underaged.’” (6) In the US there was (and sometimes still is) a similar linking of homosexuality with pedophilia, but instead of violence, gay men were expected to be effeminate and weak. Najmabadi makes sure that we can see the difference between American and Iranian perceptions of homosexuality.

She challenges the American notion of trans* identities further by describing “woman-presenting-males” in a post-revolutionary Iranian Islamic state: these “woman-presenting-males” had become accepted in certain places/professions but then “transgressed the newly imposed regulations of gendered dressing in public.” (7) Their unacceptability came from an outright religious source, rather than the American notion of crossing social boundaries that are not necessarily informed by Christianity. The pre-revolutionary scientific community was not concerned with “Islamic rulings on medical matters” but post-revolution had to “present their reasoning about transgender/sexual matters in a different style…to be able to interact with legal authorities as needed.” (11)

Finally, Najmabadi explains that many medical definitions of transsexuality have come from the US, but because they are presented to non-Western cultures as “just science” they are “dis-located, as if with no history of origin.” (23) This is, of course, untrue – it is informed by American thinking and American culture. This final point by Najmabadi is very important to the conversation of trans* politics and identities: if Americans see everything as Eurocentric and disseminate information under this belief, then the American ideal becomes the norm and erases cultural identities as less legitimate.

-Catlyn Smallwood

First Comes Cultural Context…

The essay “Transgender Theory and Embodiment” by Katrina Roen takes a look at the “Risk of Racial Marginalization” facing trans* people transnationally. Specifically, Roen chooses to discuss trans* people of different races and cultural identities who live in New Zealand.

In the case of Don, a 45-year-old Samoan fa’afafine, culture precedes sexuality. By positioning his Samoan identity before his sexuality, Don point out the importance of cultural context and its effects on subject hood. Approaching identity and subject hood this way, scholars, academics and anyone studying trans* individuals can avoid the western/nonwestern binaristic thinking that does not necessarily or accurately asses one’s subjectivity. 

The summer after my freshman year I lived in New Zealand and can say from experience that these same sentiments are shared by many of the people who live there. Upon a trip to parliament, I realized how freeing it must be to live in a country where your cultural identity surpasses the other aspects of identity, created a shared sense of unity.  This is not to say that the intricacies and differences that create subjectivity are over looked. Oppositionally, they are simply not treated as a determining factor in one’s ability to live, work, and run the country of New Zealand. Members of parliament include gay men and women, trans* individuals as well as individuals with religious and spiritual beliefs that could be considered on the fringe, including a Rastafarian member of parliament. Just as well, a certain number of office and parliament positions are reserved for Maoris.

It is the cultural familiarity of the members of New Zealand’s parliament that allow them to negate discriminatory office policies, just as Don’s hopeful narrative insists. In attempting to remove one’s own cultural bias (which, essentially can never fully be eradicated), and position oneself at a cross sectioning of relative culture, gender, sex, and sexuality, one might be able to address theories pertaining to transnational, trans* embodied folks with less western/nonwestern undertones.

-Sally Stempler

Rethinking “Third Gender”

Romancing the Transgender Native: Rethinking the Use of the “Third Gender” Concept, was really interesting in that it discusses how “third gender” came about as a term and how it is constantly being overrun by the term transgender. This included a crisis of representation among anthropologists in which they criticized the Western construction of gender dichotomies (668). The term “third gender” was first employed to describe gender categories in non-Western cultures that did not fit neatly into a two-gender framework. According to Gilbert H. Herdt, an anthropologist and well-known proponent of “third gender” explained that this term “third” should not be taken literally but should be considered “emblematic of other possible combinations that transcend dimorphism”(669). This new term helped to formulate critiques of a two-gender system, pointing out that this type of gendered system is neither “innate nor universal” (669).

What I found interesting about this essay was that the term transgender has often replaced “third gender” in describing gender roles that are not definable in terms of gender normativity (669).Towle and Morgan argue that anthropologists that use the term transgender cross-culturally to describe any kind of non-normative gender variance are taking part in creating identities based on U.S. ideologies. They argue, “Valentine is interested-and deeply implicated, by his own admission—in the ways that anthropologists are complicit in creating the very categories they seek to understand and deconstruct.” The authors explain that many anthropological texts on “third gender” categories are popular because they can be used by transgender-identified people to talk about themselves and other trans-identified people. These readings are often popular because they resonate with U.S. identity based politics, leading to an appropriation of anthropological work in social movements (670) Towle and Morgan go on to say, “By the same token, when anthropologists use the ‘transgender’ concept to discuss ‘non-normative genders and sexualities cross-culturally,’ they ‘are complicit with those activists who imagine transgender as a universal category of gender difference’”(670).

In connection with this essay, I found an article discussing recent news for “third gendered” persons in the Middle East. In Pakistan it is now legal for a “hijra” or “eunich” to run for political office. The article explained the history of “hijras” in Pakistan, “Traditionally, the hijra (who are also numerous in India) have begged, sung or danced at weddings or worked as prostitutes to earn income. They have suffered enormous abuse and discrimination — not surprising, given that homosexuality is considered a grave sin and is, in fact, illegal in Pakistan.”

“For the past six decades, hijras in Pakistan have been isolated and denied any form of identity, along with basic human rights such as education, employment and health care. Disowned by their families and mocked and ridiculed by the rest, hijras find shelter among their kind under gurus — leaders of small, scattered transgender communities — who give them food and wage in return for their service and contribution to the group. With not many open doors in sight, they beg, dance and engage in prostitution as their only means of livelihood, becoming soft targets for harassment, violence, abuse and rape, mostly in the hands of the local police.”

“People don’t consider them as human beings. They don’t like to eat with them, drink with them or shake their hands,” Khaki told the Guardian. “But they are full citizens of Pakistan like everyone else.” 

“Homoeroticism you’ll see, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll have a same-sex relationship,” Fatimah Ihsan, a gender studies professor in Pakistan, explained to NPR. “It’s just part of our culture. In the West, I think [sexual categories have] been boxed so strictly.”

-Casey Born

Asserting the Third Gender

Katrina Roen begins her article, “Transgender Theory and Embodiment,” with a critique of transsexual and queer theories as being ethnocentric and all-in-all “too white.” These theories, as we know them, usually tell stories of trans* or queer people from an American or European viewpoint, taking into account only the American or European views on gender, sex and sexuality. In these stories anyone who is perceived as gender transgressive or non-normative is punished for it, and people who choose to present as either strictly male or female are given priority over those who choose to inhabit the more complicated middle ground. Roen shows that this is indeed a very European view of the world, and that this viewpoint puts much too much focus on medicalization when the medical community is part of the reason this ethnocentric viewpoint exists.

The European view of intelligible gender is extremely narrow, relying on two diametrically opposed sets of sexual and gendered characteristics that are defined against one another. To Americans and Europeans, these two sets of characteristics can never exist simultaneously in the same person or the illusion is destroyed – literally an illusion, created by preconceived notions ingrained into the collective societal consciousness. We know that this is, of course, a false assumption, and that everyone can and does frequently break gender barriers in everyday life. But these people are frequently called out for their perceived misdemeanor of not conforming.

Roen interviewed three people who would be considered non-conforming by American standards but who, in their native Samoa and New Zealand are considered very normal.

This is an interview done with Phylesha, a fa’afafine, which is a Polynesian term for a “third-gendered” individual. Phylesha speaks with transgendered groups but does not consider herself to be transgendered necessarily. She does not identify as either a man or a woman; rather, she wants to identify as “who I am and who I know to be.” 

-Caitlyn Smallwood

Why Third Gender?

Towle and Morgan make multiple interesting arguments in their article, “Romancing the Transgender Native.” They discuss the concept of “third gender” and its implications. They look at how this concept has been used in the U.S. to talk about transgendered people. They explain, “Over the past decade there has been an increase in the popular use of cross-cultural examples to provide legitimacy to transgender movements in the United States,” (Towle & Morgan, 666).  Social movements and political activists have taken this term and employed it in their practices in order to prove there are people outside of the two-gender system. Towle and Morgan explain how transgender activists use “third gender” to blame culture for their oppression rather than having to use the “born into the wrong body” argument.

 A news article I found, which you can look at here:

This article discusses Nepal who is offering “third gender” ID’s to citizens who don’t identify as male or female. Activists have been supporting this decision, saying it will help these people receive jobs, own property, and enroll in school. I however, disagree, especially after reading “Romancing the Transgender Native.”          

Although anthropologists have helped encourage people to think outside of a two-gender system, there have also been flaws after using this concept. One of the things this concept has done is that it lumps way too many non-normative genders into one small category. It ignores the diversity and variations within genders. Therefore, I feel that people in Nepal having “third gender” ID’s, simply reinforces yet another gender category, instead of expanding it as we should be. What is going to be next? Having people carry around fourth and fifth gender ID’s as well? The cycle will just be endless. The only solution is to completely take away having to put “male” or “female” on ID’s because the reality is, these categories do not exist. Also, what makes these activists think that carrying this ID will allow for more acceptance? I feel as if this would just make matters worse for them in the end.

Another compelling argument Towle and Morgan make is how the third gender concept creates problems with how we view non-western societies. They say, “The ‘third gender’ concept encourages Westerners to make poorly informed assumptions about the meaning and significance of gender dynamics in non-Western societies,” (681). They instead, encourage us to think about gender in terms of how it is different in each individual culture or society. This is something I think should be done even further, on an individual level as well. Gender is an individual concept for each and every person, which is another reason why I don’t think third gender ID’s should be implemented in Nepal. If we truly want to understand gender, we need to examine it individually, rather than among groups. 

– Miranda Fencl

Rural Organizing: Creating Queer-Friendly Spaces

In the article, “Losing Home” by Eli Clare, she discusses her personal story of living as a queer in a rural area. She shares her story of leaving Oregon and living in an urban setting and the differences she faced between these two settings. Clare discusses how class is important for how someone experiences their identity. She explains, “Queer identity, at least as I know, is largely urban. The happening places, events, dialogues, the strong communities, the journals, magazines, bookstores, queer organizing, and queer activism are all city-based, “ (Clare, 37). Being raised in a rural setting and then leaving after high school to go to college in an urban city allowed Clare to observe the differences in living a queer identity in either place. 

Furthermore, Clare discusses building up trans-friendly spaces in rural areas. She explains rural organizing will be a difficult process because of all of the other issues involved as well including unemployment, housing, health care, and education. She says, “It will be slow work, creating queer visibility and acceptance by building community among queer people most accustomed to isolation and by finding common cause with the very people cast as the country’s biggest, most backward homophones,” (Clare, 41). Creating these spaces will be even more difficult simply because of the perceptions they have about queer people. 

Those living in rural settings have to deal with much different issues than those living in urban settings and Clare explains some of her own personal memories of living in a rural space.  This immediately made me think about what I’ve personally learned after working in a domestic violence shelter this summer. I actually became a certified domestic violence professional and learned everything I needed to know about domestic violence. In particular, I learned about the differences people face when it comes to domestic violence based on race, class, and sexuality.

 People who identify as transgender face very specific issues than anyone else experiencing domestic violence. This website gives a good overview of some of these issues:

They have to deal with all sorts of things including being “outed” by their abusive partner, being prevented to take their hormones during their transitioning, and many shelters do not allow transgender people to stay there. This makes being in an abusive relationship even more dangerous.

 Just as those who are transgender facing different issues in abusive relationships, Clare shares how queer people face different issues based on their race, class, and location as well. Those in rural places must deal with other types of issues such as violence, not being accepted, finding a job, and having to “hide” their true identity. If we can try and create these organized rural spaces as Clare explains, maybe then we can no longer have to worry about living in fear based on  where we live and who we identify as. 

– Miranda Fencl