Transgender and Born in the “Right” Body

Posted: August 31, 2009 in Troll Wars

Dolores ParkReading Sandy Stone
I have been reading Sandy Stone’s The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto. This manifesto launched the transgender politics of the nineties by breaking with the Classical Transsexual worldview. When it was published in 1991 it signaled an era of fresh thinking about transgender. Remember that Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble was also published in 1991. With Butler’s deconstruction of Sex and Gender we had new tools to understand ourselves. Stone could ask herself what it meant to be Transsexual if the Gender Binary were a construct.
In the following quote Stone talks about the Classical Transsexual idea of being born in the “wrong” body

neither the investigators nor the transsexuals have taken the step of problematizing “wrong body” as an adequate descriptive category. In fact “wrong body” has come, virtually by default, to define the syndrome.

and it still does in much of mainstream trans discourse.

Under the binary phallocratic founding myth by which Western bodies and subjects are authorized, only one body per gendered subject is “right”. All other bodies are wrong.

This idea of “wrong body” pathologizes gender variance as a birth defect which is “fixed” by body modification. Questioning “variance as pathology” has even become “politically incorrect” in some circles because it is the foundational block of so many people’s identities. However, it is based on a poor understanding of biology. Recent brain science has confirmed that biology mixes behavioral sex and somatic sex all of the time. There is nothing “wrong” with my somatically male body being combined with a female behavioral sex. The pathology is a society which enforces extreme taboos against femininity among somatic males.
The strength of this policing forces me to change my body, or even go stealth in order to have my woman-ness recognized. My woman-ness is just as real and just as biological as the woman-ness of both trans-women and cisgendered women.
Do I need to modify my body in order to be a “real” woman? Can body modification make you a “real” woman, or is body modification a social act which attempts to end the dissonance between behavioral sex ?

Subconscious Sex
Serano’s idea of subconscious sex even tries to biologize the “wrong” body model. In her model if you have female “Subconscious Sex” and a somatically male body you feel body dysphoria and are compelled to transition. Body dysphoria becomes the biological marker of the “real” transsexual. If I do not transition that means that I have the male subconscious sex gene. That makes transitioners and non-transitioners biologically different. She attempts to make transsexual and no-ho transgender into a biological division. As I have reported in my Feminism and Brain Sex video series, Serano’s subconscious sex has no basis in empirical biology. What we are calling brain sex is actually innate behavioral sex. We are not born with gender identities, we are born with sexed behavioral patterns. A transitioner has the same brain biology as a no hormone transgender.

  1. Rachel_in_WY says:

    There is nothing “wrong” with my somatically male body being combined with a female behavioral sex. The pathology is a society which enforces extreme taboos against femininity among somatic males

    This seems right to me. I imagine the evolution of this phrasing as being founded in an attempt to make the experience understandable from a cis perspective – a sort of metaphorical way of explaining the experience. Then it sort of became standardized and reified.

    But it’s also important to remember that for a lot of trans folk this really is the best way to describe the experience – as a palpable feeling of being in the wrong kind of body. And if you really feel that you should be in the opposite sort of body and social role, no amount of gender flexibility in your culture is going to help. You’re really just going to want to change your body to make it seem right, or less wrong. Of course, the problem arises when we generalize this description to cover the experiences of all transgender people, or everyone whose behavioral sex doesn’t match their somatic sex.

  2. Jasper Gregory says:

    I agree with your framing of “wrong” body as a metaphor that became standardized and reified.
    I also agree that the “wrong” body frame works for many trans people. It is not my intention to invalidate that. My intention is to denaturalize body modification. I think there is an attempt by many to make body dysphoria into the proof that transsexuals are genetically different than lo-mod transgenders.
    The current brain science supports the idea that transgender and transsexual people share the same genetic basis. We are all behaviorally cross-sexed. The different ways of dealing with the cross-sexed condition are a result of social, cultural and psychological factors.

  3. Cath says:

    @ Rachel: I’m not so sure about the ‘no amount of gender flexibility in your culture’ bit. just a passing thought. the feeling of ‘wrong’ body is at least partly owed to the fact that a particular body is associated with a particular set of socially acceptable performances. were everything acceptable, i suppose the way we perceive our bodies might be quite different, much less uncomfortable.

  4. Jasper Gregory says:

    It is a hard one, because we can only guess. I know that part of my own interest in electrolysis was to be perceived by others as more feminine. I just wanted people to stop projecting ‘man’ on me, and to give me the social space to express female-typical behaviors.
    In the end I achieved much of what I desired by subtle cross dressing and by educating people I meet about my gender.
    If we lived in a society where a boy can have a somatically-female body, there might be less body dysphoria, but how much less?

  5. Schala says:

    Serano speaks of subconscious sex as body identity. It is NOT tied to behavior. Nothing to do with liking dolls or pink, or dressing up certain ways.

    If you feel the urge to physically transition (wether or not you go all the way), it’s because of a mismatched body identity with said body. Note that the “right” body might not be the other sex either, but something in the middle.

    So, if culture had no prescriptive behavior whatsoever about what is girly, or boyish, those people would still transition.

  6. Jasper Gregory says:

    @schala I have been avoiding this subject for months.
    An academic trying to gather empirical data on this one would have a hard time proving or disproving. Serano postulates a biological/genetic basic for body identity. I expect a mix of bio, socio-cultural and psychological.
    As someone from a social science background, I believe that self-reporting is a very weak form of dat gathering for such complex phenomena.

  7. Schala says:

    Socio-cultural and psychological doesn’t enter the equation when you’re barely 5 years old. Just like “gay people recruiting children” doesn’t make one iota of sense. People know they’re gay or lesbian very often many years before even considering being sexually or even romantically active.

    And trans people know their trans long before they grasp any of the complexity of gender roles. Haven’t seen many 5 years old boys complain about being expected to provide for their family or having more workdeaths. Or many 5 years old girls complain about being stay at home and having unequal pay/opportunity of work.

    Trans women may sometimes be girly in childhood. Trans men may sometimes be boyish in childhood. Far from a guarantee though, most of the feminine boys end up not being trans and vice-versa, not because they get discouraged, but because they have no body identity problem. They just like girly/boyish stuff and explore it innocently as children. Many don’t feel the same way as adults regarding feminity and such, but even if they did, hormones wouldn’t help them.

    John Money popularized the idea of body map. A map your brain has of the body it expects to have. If it matches? No problem. If it doesn’t? Great depression, or at best, overcompensation in other areas (become super macho, join the army, marry, have children…to make it go away)…which they figure years later was useless.

    Serano’s subconscious sex idea is not new, it’s just a new term for it.

    As for me, if I simply was feminine or liked female gender roles, I would’ve done like you: no hormones, no surgery, no expensive electrolysis and just live as a feminine man.

    It’s not what motivated my transition. In a world without meaning tied to clothes, behavior, job types, make-up, appearance etc, I still would transition. Might look different (as all of society would), but I’d try to lower the body dissonance to a liveable threshold (that might mean no surgery, it might not – hormones are powerful on their own).

    I express my idea of dissonance via an incompatibility with male endocrinology. Male levels of testosterone and the absence of estrogen just makes me poisoned, depressed to the extreme, and with a boatload of acne. It’s not only responsible for having facial hair, it’s like a cancer in itself.

  8. Case says:

    THANK YOU Schala. Well said. This emergence of anti-transsexual within the (sickenly assigned) umbrella ‘transgender’ community must be quelled. Live and let live, people!

    There’s a huge trans spectrum – from dis-ease with gender to dis-ease with body and anywhere between. As society begins to alter its acceptability levels for ‘differing’ gender performances, and distinguishing who actually feels uncomfortable with their bodies, the more we can perhaps get down to figuring out the divots in that spectrum. Completely setting aside the question of sexuality in children, since there likely is no such thing, we should stick to the question of gender versus body. And why DO we still assume that femininity in boys means they’re gay! Obviously, as we see in the youth of the new millennium, sexuality can be more fluid than we thought. Plenty of tomboys fall in love with male bodies, and v.v.

    I DO feel badly for parents of, and children of today’s culture who are being confused for transsexual due to Oprah et al, when indeed they just prefer dressing and acting in ‘opposite’ roles for an extended period of time. It’s already confusing within the trans community, let alone for cis-gendered and cis-bodied parents (for the lack of a better word), including gay folks to grasp the concepts, beliefs, and/or confusions! If a child prefers ‘cross-gendered’ clothing and behavior, and they don’t have access to well-educated doctors, the pendulum of assumptions can swing too far in ANY direction between bodies, gender, sexuality.

    Plus this still doesn’t factor in the question of time/age. I’ve seen several ‘sparkle boys’ who dissipate into being ‘boy’ boys by pre-teen age (and even vice versa!) THIS is gender performance, and obviously happens quite a bit. (Again, not even getting into the assumption of femininity in males equals gay, nor the fluidity of sexuality, let alone gender.)

    But for those with persistent mental, emotional, and physical disruption over their body, I’m also thankful for the early recognition and ability for those pre-adolescent who have the ability to say ‘Hey, let’s postpone puberty until we can tell for sure.’

    I’d say if the persistence of dis-ease specifically is with one’s body (and NOT just gendered behavior or clothing preference) and it extends beyond 15, 16, 17, 18, it’s likely you have a transsexual. Depending on the physical progression for that child, perhaps it wouldn’t be too late or too early to stop naturally occurring hormones around those ages.

    Hopefully docs and endos can figure that out for each individual case. Hopefully the education can reach middle America and small towns sooner than later, so that every person can be appropriately assisted in understanding and living their lives more comfortably.

  9. I suggest you to put facebook likes button.

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