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Back You are here: Home Sex, Gender & Sexuality Diversity - [Archived] ISGD Trans body modification: from conformity to liberation

Trans body modification: from conformity to liberation

TransSurgeryTrans people who reject social norms by changing their body through surgical means are often forced to measure themselves against new models of conformity set out by the medical profession. But body modification has the potential to be as liberating as other more radical interpretations of sex or gender, writes Natasha Curson.

14 November 2010

In the October issue of The Scavenger Max Attitude and Nyx Matthews discussed body modification, exploring how other physical and presentational aspects of being trans related to the sexual politics of being trans, and to sexual politics more widely.

I found it very interesting and it struck a chord with me at a time when I am greatly concerned with my own physical being.

I do not want to make this an article about me, but it is probably best to begin by declaring that I am a woman of transgender history; that I started to come to terms with myself comparatively recently; and that I consider that body modification can represent liberation.

Although there is also a risk, I agree, that it can be imprisoning. A lot may depend on context, motivation and individual circumstances.

In the article Max challenges the idea:

… that a certain amount of suffering … must substantiate trans lives in order for surgery to be admissible. (One) must construct a story about the pain of ‘the wrong body’ in order to obtain surgery. I hate that suicidal trans discourse, like one has to be suicidal before it’s ok to get surgery?

While that is certainly one narrative, it does not seem the only one to me.

It implies a desire to ‘get rid of something’ (sexual characteristics that distress the trans person) rather than the positive prospect of obtaining something (a body more aligned with one’s sense of being).

The “suicidal discourse” was formed in the context of particular social and medical conceptions of transness which are at least, no longer universal, though there is still massive room for improvement.

However, one of the consequences of medical support for trans people being conceived, until recently, in very rigid ways, was not only the need to jump through particular hoops, in some cases even forcing people to lie in order to obtain help, but also that a lot of trans people’s sense of self was shaped by the type of help available.

Effectively the medical profession set up a set of new norms against which we had to measure ourselves. As a result many people have had the distressing experience that, having  come to terms with their transness enough to reject social norms, they then have to measure themselves against a new conformity, and feel discomfort or anxiety if the definitions medical gatekeepers offer don’t resonate with their own sense of self.

So let me make a different kind of assertion.

It’s evident that in the past few years people have begun to find many different ways to be trans.

For most, the first inklings of their trans identity are likely to be private and individual. So the first challenge for many is to make sense of those feelings as they emerge in the context of the dominant, bi-gendered culture we have all been schooled into.

In my case it was many years before I found the courage to tell someone else how I felt, and yet more years passed before I first met another trans person. The rise of support networks, the internet and a generally more liberal climate in the Western World is allowing people to find information and support more readily and rapidly.

And to organize.

And to explore questions of identity more openly through interactions with other trans people and, increasingly, within society at large.

This has led to a flowering of openly new modes of gender expression and identity – of people not only challenging the dominant discourse but finding new and powerful ways of identifying, in reaction to the alternative dominant discourses within the medical profession and within trans communities themselves.

This is, to use a technical term, cool.

But the key word for me is ‘openly’. I think that all of this diversity of being was always there, but what has changed is the potential to explore one’s own sense of self more openly and to become more confident about doing so.

When the use of hormonal treatment and bodily modifications became possibilities, trans people moved to take advantage of them. But those trans people were there before the medical aid was there, not “invented” by it.

Now that there are many ways to be genderqueer, people are taking advantage of those opportunities too, and finding ways of being that are more congruent with their own sense of self.

But those people were always there as well – it’s just that they had to find ways of fitting themselves, perhaps uncomfortably, into the more limited definitions and medical options that used to be available.

If we fail to consider this, then as some people find themselves more liberated, others may find themselves re-imprisoned by those who judge them to fall short of newer, more radical interpretations of gender.

Some established feminist viewpoints can muddy the waters here. Sheila Jeffreys’ desire to look forward to a time “beyond gender” (quoted by Max) has its roots, of course, in women’s sense during the early feminist movement that they had to take back control of their bodies.

As well as being physically/biologically free, there was also an impulse to break free of social constraints around work, appearance, marriage, child-rearing. This in turn led to some very negative views from some corners of the women’s movement towards trans people, particularly trans women.

And these views in turns reinforced notions that those seeking body modification were attempting to conform to norms and expectations of what it means to be a man, or to be a woman.

Once again, let’s try coming at this from another angle.

We’ve already agreed that there are many, many different ways to be trans, and that the possibility of particular modes of being depend on either rebelling against social norms or on society offering a wider range of social possibilities.

But if you believe, as I do, that being trans and/or intersex is part of normal biological variation; and therefore that gender, however much gender expression becomes filtered through social context, is an essential part of our being; and that, finally, gender is a huge, wonderful spectrum; then it follows that some will be closer to one end of that spectrum than the other, and that some may find their physical self and their sense of gender at odds to a polarized degree.

It therefore seems reasonable to imagine that people in those circumstances may benefit, and become more themselves, as a result of body modification to align their physical sense of being with their psychological sense of being. In those cases, body modification may have the potential, at least, to be hugely liberating.

Negotiating the path towards body modification is never easy, of course. Part of the problem is finding ways of being in control of the necessary medical assistance. There are many obstacles in the way of feeling, as well as being in control.

One is the necessity to be pathologised in order to get access to help. There is of course, a lot of work going on to try and depathologize transness, although there is also unease about how access to medical help will be managed if/when this is done, particularly in the context of increasing constraints on healthcare funding.

For example in the UK rationing (or cherry-picking which treatments to offer) has often been spuriously justified by defining trans as a “lifestyle choice”.

Trans people must also contend with paternalistic, “we know best” views from some (not all) medical practitioners, and the fact that medics and politicians tend to deal in narrow, limited definitions of transness, to help them simplify formation of laws and to “manage” access to treatment.

Some non-western clinics, for example some of those in Thailand, are finding more integrated, holistic ways to work with trans people to meet their medical needs, a development which western medicine seems largely oblivious to.

Finally, there is a massive economic factor in play. Access to more enlightened practitioners and better, more patient-centred services often depends on ability to pay, which surely cannot be right.

We cannot underestimate the challenges involved for trans individuals to find the right way for them given all these pressures and complexities, and also that we must all grapple with the “noise” of gender conformity in society at large.

That some (increasing numbers, in fact) succeed in finding a comfortable sense of physical and social self, is encouraging.

That some of those people feel confident enough to engage with, and progress the public debate, is more encouraging still.

For some people, liberation will mean the realization that they can become socially free without body modification.

For others, myself included, body modification is a significant element in obtaining that freedom, provided one is able to choose freely from the possibilities on offer.

I celebrate that diversity, and I feel it is important for those going down a  particular route to resist the temptation to sit in judgement on those who have chosen a different route. That it is the individual’s choice, made in as free and as informed a way as possible, is crucial. As Nyx said to Max:

a considered, carefully analysed want is more valid than just what you came out of the lucky dip with.

The danger is in considering the social, political, personal and physical elements of body modification in isolation from each other.

One consequence of that can be seen in the determination that intersex is exclusively a physical phenomenon, and transness exclusively a psychological one.

This impoverishes the help on offer for both communities, and sometimes labels those who identify as both trans and intersex as “impossibilities”.

Until we can develop an interdisciplinary and holistic approach to care, many people will struggle to find their own way through the medical options on offer, and as a result may make decisions that they subsequently come to regret. We need a new, person-centred approach to looking at these issues.

The process for the individual of making such choices is fraught with difficulties. Gender variant people need to emerge from the pressures to conform to a way of being that they know is wrong for them; negotiate a minefield of complex social, medical and legal choices; and be prepared to take an incredibly hard, critical look at themselves so that they can move forward.

This is necessary, and beneficial, but incredibly tough work. It points to the need for a much more nuanced understanding of gender than we have at present, which synthesises social, political, academic and scientific viewpoints.

Crucially, it requires us to listen to and respect the many and divergent voices of trans people as they individually explore their own sense of self, rather than force them to conform to a new orthodoxy having rightly swept away the old one.

Natasha Curson is Director of Postgraduate Programmes in Higher Education Practice at the University of East Anglia (UEA), Norwich, UK. She writes on gender and LGBT issues, and also about culture and media. A member of UEA Staff Pride and Norwich Pride, she blogs on trans issues at Natasha Curson: A trans history.

 

Comments   

0 #8 maxattitude 2011-02-13 20:59
Hey Natasha,

glad our work inspired you. look forward to more dialogue,
best wishes

maxattitude.wordpress.com
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0 #7 Kaikoura 2010-11-16 14:25
Natasha,

My comments were targeted at the many people who are deliberately going out there to marginalise transsexuals and the intersexed. I have seen no evidence that gender dysphoria or gender identity disorder affect anyone other than transsexuals. We now have people going around demanding to be accepted as women yet have had no medical intervention and have functioning penises. Then there are women out there demanding to be accepted as men yet they go on to give birth to children. I am sorry but since when did women have penises and men give birth? If a human being started demanding to be called a tree or a whale, do we pander to them to?

The human species, and many of the other species on this planet, manage fine with two genders. We have no need for the labels gender queer, cis men, cis women, sissies, Non Op Transsexual. Since when has a baby been born and the word gender queer been put on their birth certificate or even sissy for that matter?

You may well disagree, which is your perogative. However i know that there are people out there who are fed up to the back teeth to the idiocy being touted as if it were fact about numerous genders.
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0 #6 Natasha Curson 2010-11-16 14:08
Kaikoura,

As you might imagine, I disagree with a lot of what you suggest here, although you are of course entitled to your opinion. However I don't think, in general, that arguments are strengthened by name-calling.
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0 #5 Natasha Curson 2010-11-16 06:03
Thanks for your comments Bigkate. We all have different takes on use of language. I actually dislike the word transsexual, both because of the connotations of around sexuality rather than gender, but also because it feels like a medical definition I don't accept. I use trans as a general term to define someone experience any kind of gender variance, I am not using it interchangeably wiht transsexual at all. And my piece is not an argument in favour of one particular way of being trans - just an exploration of ways in which medical intervention may be beneficial and empowering for some people. I'm afraid I'm not quite clear about the other points you are making.
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0 #4 Kaikoura 2010-11-16 05:58
I have to say there is so much crap being written by 'supposed' experts on gender and gender identity. Usually by boring people trying to make themselves highly interesting. The human species is just one of many inhabitants on Planet Earth. All the other inhabitants manage with two genders , male and female, yet thats not good enought for these 'supposed' experts. They want 5, 10, 100 different genders which is utter nonsense. We have male and female, end of story.

Many assume, incorrectly, that transsexuals challenge the ideas of gender, they do not. They are born one gender and need medical intervention to become the other because thats what they truly believe themselves to be. Then we have the intersexed possibly born with the genitalia of both gender and they just want to be the one they see themselves to be. Once again male or female. Medical science accepts these for what they are, medical condition that can be alleviated by surgical & medical intervention.

Then we have those who are transvestite and cross dressers. They know exactly what they are and the vast majority are happy in their activities of partly or fully dressing as the opposite gender. They manage this quite happily on their own, with other or out in public. I applaud these people becuase they recognise it is nothing more than a 'hobby' for them and something they enjoy for periods of time but would never consider doing this 24/7. I would also fight for their right to do this and support them if need be.

The biggest problems are the 'Wannabees'. They are dangerous and in most cases highly deluded. They are the ones who demand the use of the word transgender and the supposed transgender spectrum. As a transsexual woman i despise the word transgender and refuse to allow myself to be bracketed under that title. I know many transsexuals who feel exactly the same as it is a highly insulting term for us. As for a spectrum then thats is utter nonsense as well. We are all human beings fine but to suggest that transsexuals/in tersexed are the same as drag queens, she males, sissy tomboys, etc etc is farcical nonsense. The fact is that medical science acknowledges that transexuals/int ersexed have a medical condition needing medical & surgical intervention. These 'Wannabees' want to latch on to a connection with transsexual/int ersexed as it gives them some kind of legitimacy, what utter nonsense. Just because there are more of the 'Wannabees' than transsexual/int ersexed and they have a bigger voice doesnt make them right. Nor should these get any medical intervention other than possibly counselling. Funds should not be wasted on hormones, breast augentation, FFs etc unless that patient has undergoing gender reassignment. If they are not prepared to go that far then they just want the surgery for their own sexual pleasure.

The biggest issue today is that transsexual/int ersexed have fought for years to get proper medical care across the globe. Just when we are making headway along comes this 'transgender brigade' shouting their mouths off so such an extent the transsexual/int ersexed community is once again being marginalised. I believe the 'transgender brigade' are on the WPATH committee where to be blunt they have absolutgely no place to be because they do not have the interests of transsexuals & intersexed at heart rather making sure their own fantasies get played out.

The Transsexual and Intersexed communities need to get together and fight to break this nonsense of being labelled transgender. It is causing us nothing but problems as the antics of some members of the transgender community are have a detrimental effect on our problems. They ridicule our attempts to live normal lives, they are the ones who end up in the press which means many start lobbying for the withdrawal of treatment for us. Then we are back at square one with high rates of suicides amongst the transsexual and intersexed communities and all because of these nutters
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0 #3 Big kate 2010-11-16 00:19
some things
I wish you would stop using trans when you mean transexual
trans does not equal transexual just because I like dragging up as a man does mean I wan to take T or live full time as one
transexuality is just a form of intersexuality but it's also part trans
the widespread use of trans and even the T in LGBT to exclusivly mean transexuality is an example of transexuals insecurity and need for external validation, In many ways the behaviour reminds me of sheila jefferies who wants teh power of lesbian for herself
sheila jeffreys views of lesbianism is idiotic or it was 10 years ago when i last read her insane writings that sought to justify her identity as lesbian by excluding pretty much anyone who was lesbian but unlike her

It would have been nice if you had noticed what you have to go to a psychiatrist for in relation to body surgery? have a think about it and its relatedness to insecurity around gender and transgender
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0 #2 Victoria Cantons 2010-11-14 13:42
Thank you for your article Tasha and I reposted it on to my Facebook page.
I do believe that the more these subjects can be discussed publicly with as varied a discussion panel as possible the better it will ultimately be.
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0 #1 Amber Thompson 2010-11-14 10:00
The feminists are forgetting, that gender roles are not the same as gender.
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