September 29, 2011

A simple definition of transgenderism is any form of dress and/or behavior interpreted as contravening traditional gender roles. Transgenderism comprises a diverse collection of individuals expressing one of three basic facets. First, there are those who transform to the opposite gender within the heteronormative dichotomy. (Heteronormativity describes a binary gender system, in which only two sexes are recognized, where sex is equated with gender and gender with a heterosexual orientation.) These individuals are referred to as transsexuals in the medical literature and typically seek surgical solutions to confirm their transidentity. Those who move across or blend genders represent the second group. Crossing involves moving to the other side of the gender binary system (either partially or completely) but rejecting the need for surgery to confirm identity. Thus, the emphasis is on crossing and not on surgical transformation. Those who blend genders combine or harmonize aspects to create a unique presentation. However, blending and crossing still give reflexive credibility to the heteronormative categories. There are still two genders. In the third facet, a trans-gendered person is one who has transcended the boundaries of the heteronormative gender binary system. An unequivocal gender attribution can neither be made nor in most cases does the individual permit a category to be assigned. Gender ceases to exist for these individuals.

Transgenderism is often represented as a challenge to the social construction of gender. However, this may be an oversimplification. Although the existence of transpeople exposes the dubiousness and fragility of the conventional female/male dichotomy, transpeople still live in a social context that acknowledges only females and males. The true challenge may rest with the ability of transgendered persons to earn and maintain a transgender attribution in the face of a socially sanctioned process that constrains others to assign them to heteronormative female and male categories.

In theory, transgenderism may appear to be an innovative subversion of traditional gender categories and roles. However, in practice, it may actually serve to reinforce the heteronormativity it seeks to destabilize. For example, establishing transgender as an official identity creates a boundary between gendered persons and transgendered persons. The unfortunate consequence is that this separation enables the remainder of the population to locate transpeople into a category of other and helps them to be even more secure about dividing themselves along established gender lines.

Numerous other societies have accommodated transgenderism as a legitimate third gender category. Examples include the Hijiras of India, Native American Berdaches, Eunuchs of the Byzantine Empire, the Mahu of Tahiti, Philippine Baklas, the Kathoey of Thailand, Indonesian Warias, and the Fafafines of Samoa, among others. Many societies throughout history have also accommodated transgenderism in the performing arts. Because women were forbidden to appear on stage in past centuries, men were required to take the roles of women. The ongoing Japanese Kabuki Theater, where the tradition of performing a female role on stage is passed from father to son, and the long-abandoned tradition of castrato sopranos in the Italian Opera, where young boys were castrated to preserve their soprano singing voices, are two examples.

Societies with strong Christian traditions tend to be less tolerant of transgenderism. However, even in societies where it is accommodated, tolerance does not necessarily translate to acceptance. Persecution of trans-people can be found everywhere. Moreover, the focus on describing the diversity under the transgendered umbrella tends to divert attention away from the social and political consequences of forming a transgender identity and the historical progression that made it possible.

See Also: FemininityGenderGender roleHomosexualityIntersexualityLesbianMasculinityQueer, Transsexuality

Suggested Reading

  • Bornstein, K. (1995). Gender outlaw: On men, women, and the rest of us. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Kessler, S. J., & McKenna, W. (1985). Gender: An ethnomethodological approach. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Nanda, S. (1999). Gender diversity: Crosscultural variations. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
  • Wilchins, R. (1997). Read my lips: Sexual subversion and the end of gender. Ann Arbor, MI: Firebrand Books.



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