Trans Embodiment as a One-way Journey

In May, Caitlyn Jenner sat down for an interview with Diane Sawyer and was featured on the June cover of Vanity Fair. Jenner’s story, to that point, had been predictably marked by speculation and rumors of her “becoming a woman” or more crudely her “sex change.” Audiences impatiently waited for her to confirm the secret we thought we already knew, so impatiently that some tabloids photoshopped Jenner’s face onto the body of Stephanie Beachum[1].

Despite the increasing visibility of trans people and increasing space for multiple identities and lived experiences within trans communities, a narrow definition trans life and experience drives media representations and public discourse about trans people. These narrow expectations can be traced to medical and popular discourses in the 1960s and 70s.

As the terms transsexuality and transgender evolved, sex and gender became understood as separate concepts. Trans came to stand in for the dissonance between sex and gender, trans people became recognized as a particular kind of person, and a dominant trans narrative emerged. This narrative includes the feeling of being born in the wrong body, cross-gender identification and behavior from a young age, dissatisfaction with one’s sex designated at birth, and medical intervention as the only solution.

Two hallmarks of this narrative most important for our consideration include 1) the framing of trans as mobility where transition is a one-way journey from one sex/gender to the other through time and space, and 2) that passing as the “other” gender is the ultimate goal of trans people.

Transsexuality and the separation of sex, gender, and sexuality [2]

Access to surgery and hormone therapy throughout the second half of the 20th century was heavily guarded by medical gatekeepers. Endocrinologist Harry Benjamin began calling his gender variant patients “transsexuals” in the 1950s and 60s. In 1966, he published The Transsexual Phenomenon. Sexologists Robert Stoller, John Money, and Richard Green (among others) published scientific articles and books on transsexuality soon after. In these text and through their diagnoses and treatment philosophies, these men attempted to delineate transsexuality from sexual identity disorders such as homosexuality and transvestism.

Sex, gender, and sexuality were articulated away from one another through this pathologization of sexual identities. As Joanne Meyerowitz argues, sexologists and medical professionals coined “gender identity” to describe a person’s feeling of being a particular gender. In their view, transsexuals suffered from gender identity disorder – one’s gender identity exists in opposition to sex assigned at birth and sex/gender role (the norms and expectations which accompany that sex designation). Transsexuals, then, became a diagnostic class of their own. They were not homosexuals; as homosexuals were attracted to people of their same sex and did not display dissonance between their gender identity and sex assigned at birth/sex role. Nor were they transvestities; as transvestites were heterosexual men who dressed in women’s clothing (sometimes for erotic purposes, other times as a manifestation of “compartmentalized femininity”).

As medical professionals, these men believed in the power of medical intervention to cure sexual identity disorders, and gender identity clinics popped up at teaching and research hospitals across the country. However, to qualify for treatment at most gender identity clinics, applicants had to present particular versions of their stories which fell in line with the diagnostic expectations. Such was the power of medical discourse that Nancy Hunt, a transsexual memoirist, did not define transsexuality herself in Mirror Image, but rather included a scene in which she discusses the terms with a doctor who expertly explains the “condition” to her.

Because these medical professionals acted as gatekeepers to gender identity clinics, transsexual people followed a narrow script to gain access to health care at the clinic: they reported that their gender dysphorias manifested at an early age; that they had a history of playing with “gender appropriate toys;” that they have a history of failing at endeavors appropriate to their assigned birth gender; that their sexual attraction are exclusively heterosexual; and that they have the potential to “pass successfully” as a member of their desired sex. People were often tuned down for not displaying the correct diagnostic criteria or if the medical professional did not think the person would successfully pass.

Sporting Binaries and gendered expectations/policing

The ability to pass, and the concept of transsexuality more generally, relied upon static, dichotomous understandings of sex, gender, and sexuality. Sport and physical activity played (and still plays) a major role in the definition of sex roles and appropriate behavior for males & females, men & women. Unsurprisingly, sport was categorically considered a masculine activity and was used as a diagnostic criteria for gender identity disorder. Transsexual males[3] (designated male at birth but has feminine gender identity) disliked sport and were not physically skilled. Just the opposite, transsexual females (designated female at birth but has masculine gender identity) purportedly enjoyed playing sport and were quite athletically skilled.

Throughout the 1970s, memoirs and autobiographies of transsexuals proliferated. While Mario Martino’s Emergence described his life in great detail, most of their memoirs and autobiographies were written by transsexual women. Sport participation was often a major structuring device in their writing. For many of them, sport lurks as a masculine specter throughout their narratives, indicative of their inherent femininity. As children they played sport, but weren’t very good at it; they played sport to prove to their fathers that they were masculine but ultimately failed; or they despised competition all together. Their failed sport participation was proof of their femininity.

Taken together, transsexual memoirs and medical research, created transsexuality as an embodied passage between male and female, men and women. Medical intervention marked one’s route from one sex to the other, and surgery was the final step in a one-way journey. Because their gender identity had always been that of the other sex, transsexuality works conceptually as realizing the trueness of gender identity, as inherent mobility, and as a physical manifestation of the liminal space between sexes/genders.

One-way narratives and transsexual sport participation

Despite this overdetermined interaction between sport and gender identity, many transsexuals played and enjoyed sport. Nancy Hunt quipped that some of her fondest memories were of sailing in the harbor near her childhood home and Renee Richards found solace on the tennis court. And yet, sport relies upon binary and hierarchical understand of sex/gender such that all male humans are athletically superior to all female humans. Here, the one-way transsexual narrative with medical transition as the final stop becomes incredibly important to an athlete’s ability to participate on the team or in the division that matches their gender identity.

Several weeks ago Schuyler Bailar became the first known trans swimmer in NCAA Division I competition[4]. This coming school year, he will swim on the men’s team after being recruited to swim for the women’s team. Discussions of his (in)ability to be competitive on the men’s team have swirled since his announcement. In these discussions, the complexities of physical ability and athleticism are reduced to testosterone levels.

While trans men’s sporting abilities are doubted, trans women must “prove” that they no longer have the advantages “afforded to them” by testosterone. Transsexual women, transgender identified women, and women with transgender histories must adhere to one-way narratives of embodiment. Further, scientific measurements of muscle mass, body composition, speed, and strength are all commonly used to demonstrate the sexed/gendered distance traveled by their bodies.

Fallon Fox, an MMA fighter who self identifies as a trans woman, has repeatedly and consistently been accused of having an unfair advantage. In the middle of a long rant on a highly circulating radio broadcast, popular MMA analyst Joe Rogan spit, “She calls herself a woman but… I tend to disagree. She used to be a man but now she has had, she’s a transgender which is (the) official term that means you’ve gone through it, right? And she wants to be able to fight women in MMA. I say no fucking way. I say if you had a dick at one point in time, you also have all the bone structure that comes with having a dick. You have bigger hands, you have bigger shoulder joints. You’re a fucking man. That’s a man, OK? I don’t care if you don’t have a dick any more… You’re a man without a dick.”

Here the journey narrative breaks down, and Fox cannot traverse the space from male to female despite seven years elapsing between her surgery and MMA career. She must constantly defend her participation in women’s divisions and has penned several pieces debunking myths about trans embodiment.

A life in transition

Like the medical gatekeeping system of the 1970s, sporting institutions work to limit the variety of trans narratives and possibilities for trans embodiment to binary, one-way journeys. This overdeterminination of produces narrow possibilities for embodiment and experience. Gender fluidity, non-binary embodiment, and the complexities of transition are left out of these discussions. Some trans people do not want to and/or cannot access health care systems. For some trans people one-way binary narratives are fictional narrative devices that allow them to access health care and nothing more.

And yet, these overdetermined narratives cannot capture or delimit the full diversity of trans experiences. If we ponder the metaphorical work that one-way journeys do, we can also meditate upon questions of the boundaries between male and female, man and woman. Are these boundaries located in or on the body? And, what must trans bodies look like in order to participate in sport?

[1] The BuzzFeed article was written prior to Caitlyn’s announcement that her pronouns of reference are she/her/hers and thus appropriately uses Bruce and he/him/his to refer to Jenner.

[2] In this section I will use terminology popular in the medical texts of the era in order to demonstrate the complexities of our usage today. Some of these terms are still commonly used while others are considered offensive.

[3] Here I am using the then pervasive medical terminology. Today, the terminology privileges the person’s identity or experience. Thus, the term transsexual male would describe a person who identifies as male/man/masculine but was designated female at birth.

[4] Lindsay Parks Pieper discussed various policies in a post last year.

Cathryn Lucas experiences gender in non-binary ways and will explore the expansive potential of a life in transition by meditating upon the body in motion. Cathryn can be reached at cathryn-lucas@uiowa.edu

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