Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Perplexing Transsexing

Ever since my first semester at Cal, I have been fascinated by the study of gender, sex, and sexuality. By the idea that there might be this vast hidden network of lies and misconceptions, of expectations, and definitions that we live our lives inside of, yet remain entirely unaware of their presence, of the effect that they have on shaping our lives. "Like fish in the water, who don't know that they are wet," we live within the parameters of this ill conceived, predefined world. Wearing our identity labels like bar codes, we squeeze ourselves into these tight little boxes, and line ourselves up on these tiny little shelves.

It is easy to forget that it hasn't always been like this, this black and white world in which we currently live. And the time has come again, to seek out, to embrace, to cultivate, to re-inhabit the gray.

Transsexualism is the perfect case study for anyone with interest in this field of knowledge. Those individuals who cannot be contained within said boxes, who belie definition, who fight only for the right to be themselves. In the last ten years, I have read every article, book, memoir, and case study, every documentary, that I could get my hands on. Like Augusten, I am Transfixed by Transsexuals.

After all of it, however, I am still left wanting more. What seems to be lacking, at least for me, in this small edifice of transsexual scholarship, is the one ultimate, quintessential, personal account, the description of how it is that someone does not feel like themselves, in their pre-transitioned bodies. Ultimately, my question remains, are we transcending sex, or gender?

Undeniably it is both. I get it. But all of the accounts I have seen or read to date seem to lack the real decisive language to push beyond just describing a gender issue. Yet the transition itself is related entirely as being about sex. Anatomy that needs realignment with one's inner self. Which isn't to say that I don't believe that there is a disconnect, but rather that it remains unsatisfyingly articulated into words.

Too often have we heard tale of boys who, when alone, put on dresses to feel comfortable, and girls who refused to wear them in the first place. Of boys who preferred the company of dolls to green plastic army men, and girls who chose to build things or climb trees over playing house or jumping rope. These are without question, however, issues of gender and not of sex. And while this may have been part of the experience of the disconnect, it does not capture the need to alter one's physical body. After all, many males, myself included, as children enjoyed dressing up in women's clothing, and playing with traditionally feminine toys, without then feeling the need to amputate our penises.

"Would you feel comfortable if you had a penis?" Jenny Boylan asks Oprah.

Were she to wake up with one tomorrow, probably not. But were she to have been born with one, and lived her entire life inside that body, then yes, she most probably would. This is not a convincing argument. I feel like it's close, but it still falls short of being satisfying. And while her book (She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders) beautifully describes the transitional process, it fails to adequately address, for me anyway, her need to transition.

Moreover, I often have trouble reconciling the issue of sexual orientation. It is easy to view the transition as being entirely about sex, when one retains their innate sexual orientation well after transitioning. But many do not. And there are others who, I can't help but feel, seem to be transitioning in order to cope with themselves rather than to fully become themselves.There are males who, for example, are attracted to men, but only as females themselves. And there is a part of me that wonders if some of these individuals simply cannot wrap their minds around being feminine, of being sexually attracted to men, and, in order to make sense of it, they fit themselves into the nearest box that does make sense for their feelings. If I am these things, then I must also be a woman, kind of rationalization.

Again, I cannot stress too firmly that I am one hundred percent pro transsexual. I do not wish, in any way, to minimize the amount of courage and pain that transitioning requires. I absolutely respect and admire the path that they choose to walk. I am, rather, desperately pleading for the intelligent transsexuals of the world to step up to tell their stories more thoroughly. To fill in this gap. To give me my next book to read.


Cheyenne said...

Are you pondering this because of the excessive hair on my upper lip? Dammit!

Seriously, I have asked the very same questions while watching and reading so many stories. At what point is it about sex, and at what point is it about knowing you're in the wrong body?

OMG the thought of waking up with a penis is incomprehensible to say the least. And SO not okay with me. No offense.


gabrielle said...

so eloquent...

i do wonder with you being the authority on it (at least compared to anyone else i know), why there aren't more scholarly texts on the personal experience of a transsexual. somehow only the uneducated poor change their bodies? are they just not smart enough to have successfully rationalized themselves out of the need for physical alteration?

am i wrong? i definitely haven't read as much as you.

in a world where you can 'pass' as the opposite gender, why the NEED to make the real changes? is it the only way to FULLY be accepted as the sex you feel that you are? does it not seem like there is a hatred of your body that you must CUT SOMETHING OFF?!?! i dunno. i'm with you though, i'm curious (but also very supportive!).

the transition in sexuality IS also very interesting. there is so much more ambiguity - changing of teams and all.

Jacob Blankenship said...

There are many of these texts. And while they are all written by intelligent transsexuals, I think none of these individuals so far have come from within this field, and so they lack the specific vocabulary with which to describe this intersession of sex and gender. All of the work to date is moving and provocative, and even well written, but not on this specific topic. The one aspect that they all seem to universally overlook. Describing it more like the way one experiences love, no one can tell you that you're in love, you just feel it through and through, it resonates within you. Perhaps this is as specific as they can get. But I would still argue that "feeling like a woman" is still largely a gender issue. Perhaps it would be easier if we saw men transition into butch lesbians, or women into effeminate men. The transition, instead, seems to produce largely those who are perfectly gendered girly girls, and manly men. It is just SO fascinating.
And granted, I have no delusions of sexuality being binary, ridged or indelible, and understand that we are all somewhere in the middle realistically. The Kinsey scale of where we fall between sexual attraction to men and women. One would think however , that your position on said scale (attracted equally to both, to one specifically, or somewhere in the middle) would remain somewhat constant through transition. Though, I am sure that hormones play a big role in this too, so who can say. Who are we to place judgments or expectations on the lives of others. And while I don't feel like I do, I do have this deep need to understand. Which may or may not fall into that category.