Thursday, February 7, 2008

Who defines the transsexual and for what purpose?

I recently read an article about an Iranian policy which encourages sex change operations for transsexuals. While homosexuality is banned, sex changing is supported by the state, with some 10 sex change surgeons (according to the news source) in Iran. Interestingly, sex changing is considered to fit with the patriarchal social relations, because in the end it all comes down to having the appearance of a heterosexual life.

A comment on one of the previous posts argued that in fact transsexuals are confirming the binary male/female. Transsexuals often confess to being - for instance - a woman trapped in a male body, and they try to do those things which are associated with being a woman in that particular society.

Now, my knowledge of the subject is limited. I've read very little accounts of transsexual narratives, but if anyone knows of any, please let me know. The idea that transsexuals are in fact confirming the binary is appealing indeed. Judith Butler, one of the leading voices in gender/queer studies, has argued that
neither sex, nor gender are 'natural' categories that we are observing. Rather, both are always and inescapably interpreted through our social frames:
"There is no recourse to a body that has not already been interpreted by cultural meanings, hence sex could not qualify as a prediscursive anatomical facility" (Butler, 1990, Gender Trouble, p. 8).

Yet, transsexuals seem to contradict precisely Butler's argument. Or do they?
According to Alsop, Fitzsimons and Lennon, transsexuals experience a tension between the biological sex and the gender identity, which contradicts the whole idea that biological sex and gender should be one and the same.
Or, in other words, that biological sex dictates male/female identity. But it also contradicts the idea that there is such a thing as a clear-cut biological sex which is either male or female.Yet, as the authors write,
"However the widespread desire for bodily modification which is a marker of transsexual experience appears at odds with performative accounts of gender, frequently because such a desire is often expressed as a search for a real or coherent gender identity" (2002: 166)

A transsexual identity, including the vision of a what it means to be a woman, cannot be thought of in the absence of a discourse about femininity and masculinity, and the 'proper' relations between men and women (but not anything else). Even after changing their sex, male-to-female trans are not being accepted as 'true' women. There is a constant need for proving one's womaness.
I guess Iranian authorities see transsexuality in the same way: as a confirmation of heterosexuality. But one has to wonder how transsexuality is constructed by the different parties: as a confirmation of patriarchy, or as a contestation of it. The fight here is that of defining an existential mode within two pre-existing categories, of fitting transsexuality in either man/woman binary, or within the queer discourse.

News stories:
The Guardian - Sex Change Funding Undermines No Gay Claims (September 2007)
BBC News - Iran's Sex-Change Operations (January 2005)

Photo credits: Jay Khemani

No comments:

Add to Technorati Favorites