Connect the Dots

Transgender Narratives in Pop Culture

by Matt Mazur

8 September 2011


Somewhere in the Spectrum of a Non-Binary Continuum

While many transgender people portrayed in the selected films do choose to express one gender binary (whether through genital reassignment surgery, gender presentation, or other performance), or choose to live their everyday lives passing as either “male” or female” (and their decision to do so should be entirely respected), it’s essential to point out here that for many transgender people, gender expression and variance is not about being one or the other, but more about falling somewhere on a broad continuum that challenges the binary. The narratives featured in Almost Myself firmly asserts that “trans” as a category, is in itself, often preoccupied with exclusivity and can frequently be adherent to its own particular binaries (i.e., just because you have a vagina, doesn’t make you a woman, and many trans people, like Holly in the film, identify as women, yet have have opted to not use surgery or hormones to transform. Because of this, they are often shunned in certain trans circles that prefer binary gender presentation).

Though the language of “transgender” is hotly contested, I don’t personally subscribe to the school of thinking that dictates all trans folks be called by gender-neutral pronouns (such as “zie”, “sie” or “hir”) as they are completely inappropriate to someone who lives decidedly as “male” or “female”. The way I see it, those who choose to express a binary gender not assigned to them at birth have fought hard to transform into their chosen gender and should afforded the basic courtesy of being called by their chosen pronouns, not the ones that have been created by genderqueers that seem to cause major political correctness issues amongst those concerned with such matters. To call a transman or transwoman by a gender-neutral pronoun, for me, would be like calling bell hooks something other than a black feminist woman.

Even as the very term “transgender” is, as a term, often misused, and be can a highly politicized site of contestation for gender theorists, feminists, and transgender activists alike, simply defining someone who was born categorized into one biological gender who through some means switched to the other,  this still does not take into account the experiences of cross-dressers, the intersexed, those with an atypical or fluid gender identities, or those transsexual people who, following surgery, now simply might identify as “transsexual”,“male”, or “female”. Suzanne J. Kessler and Wendy McKenna write that “knowing someone’s gender assignment, identity, or role, or knowing that they belong in one of the gender-based categories, or even knowing all of this will give a great deal of information about a person but will never be sufficient information for a definite gender attribution to be made”.  (“Introduction: The Primacy of Gender Attribution”, Gender: an
Ethnomethodological Approach
. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998: p. 1 - 20) For my purposes, the umbrella term of “transgender” will define all of those individuals who do not fit neatly into the traditional heteronormative, binary safe spaces of “biological man” or “biological woman”, or of the “masculine/feminine"dichotomy, those who proudly fall on both ends of the spectrum, and everywhere else in between.

Just as the medical establishment did not know what to make of the tragic gender ambiguities of Herculine Barbin in the Victorian era or of female-to-male transsexual Robert Eades of Southern Comfort (who died of complications after more than two dozen doctors refused to treat his ovarian cancer), contemporary, unfair medical treatment of transgender people can still be widely seen across popular culture. “The point is to try to imagine a world in which individuals with mixed or indeterminate genital attributes might be accepted and loved without having to undergo [surgical, medical]  transformation into a more socially coherent or normative version of gender,” writes Judith Butler on the subject of medicine and science’s intervention into gender. (“Doing Justice to Someone: Sex Reassignment and Allegories of Transsexuality”, ibid)

In his epic New Yorker essay on athlete Caster Semenya, who has been at the center of an ongoing debate surrounding her “true” gender and the subject of relentless medical testing, writer Ariel Levy notes that “Semenya is breathtakingly butch. Her torso is like the chest plate on a suit of armor. She has a strong jawline, and a build that slides straight from her ribs to her hips.” “Sports, Sex, and the Runner Caster Semenya”, The New Yorker. 30 November 2009) Her appearance, because it does not adhere to typical binary male/female standards, has caused a furor in the international athletic community.

In the face of rampant rumors, and popular protests (by the public, the government, Semenya’s own family, and sports officials), sprinter Semenya was forced, like Herculine Barbin and Sarah Baartman aka “The Hottentot Venus” before her, to “undergo gender-verification” and multiple public humilliations and inquiries if she wanted to continue her acclaimed career.  Doctors findings have been all over the map when it comes to Semenya, with various theories and divergent conclusions as to her gender. This has forced the sprinter’s hand in every way, and she opted to retire from sports to live quitely, rather than be forced to constantly explain her gender to strangers. Levy notes that the very idea of “classification and reclassification” in South Africa – whether gendered, racial or otherwise— in a country where this particular kind of “haunted history” has been beyond harmful, people are “appalled by the idea of a person who thinks she is one thing suddenly being told that she is something else.”

While a film such as Almost Myself looks primarlily at white, comfortable, middle class women, with a variety of experiences, that isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing because it destroys the popular myth that trans people are unemployable, or social misfits in the same way Herculine Barbin’s was designated an “impossible life”. The film features many unique professional experiences: Marci is a trans doctor (a noted OBGYN who does gender reassignment surgery and who also happened to have studied with the famous GRS pioneer Stanley Biber in Trinidad, Colorado, the gender reassignment mecca of the early days of the movement), Holly and Elane are business owners, Rosalyne is an author. Kate Bornstein, quoted above, is interviewed as well, and possesses professional, artistic and scholarly accomplishments that most people only dream of.

In terms of ekeing out a degree of privilege, these white transwomen all seem to have had success in their professional lives, unlike the impoverished transwomen of various non-white backgrounds whose narratives in Cruel and Unusual tell a more desperate story of what it’s like for a trans person to be incarcerated in the wrong prison (placement is determined on what genitals are present) because of socioeconomic factors that often necessitate their segue into lives outside the law, where prostitution and theft can sometimes be the only means to a livable life. According to the film, it’s estimated that 30 percent of American transgender people have been incarcerated – more than three times the national average This is a much more bleak look at how gender is institutionally misunderstood and how the transgender body is often trapped and abused when laws that apply to only cisgender bodies are applied to bodies that don’t comply with the male/female binaries.

The sentences imposed on trans offenders are often the maximum legal limits, and often purposefully harsh. The film thoughfully examines the abuse and rape encountered by the male to female trans body when forced into an all-male prison by archaic, uncaring laws and transphobic judges who think that anyone with a penis belongs in a men’s prison, terrible things happen and the transwoman’s body often becomes not her own.

The imprisoned Yolanda submits to being her cellmate’s “jail wife” because she is afraid of what will happen if she doesn’t.  Anna, just released after serving four years for a trumped-up robbery charge, comments on how the legal system takes transwomen who have lived in their chosen, expressed gender on the outside, and strip them of their identity inside the prison system, forcing them into a living situation with men who are lonely, abusive and dangerous sexual predators. The alternative transwomen face in prison is segregation – or solitary confinement aka “protective custody”.

Anna, when first incarcerated, was taken off hormones “cold turkey” with no medical care or psychiatric care and thrown into solitary. This act is comparable to giving a woman a hysterectomy and then not treating her afterwards. The abrupt discontinuation of Anna’s treatments caused her to attempt suicide while incarcerated. “We do not recognize transsexualism as a medical condition, and if I have anything to say about it, we won’t,” claimed one prison administrator in a legal transcript read by lawyers, who noted this was not a medical professional making the statement.

The trans body is humilliated and violated repeatedly in the pentitentiary system – from forced checking of genitals to denial of hormones and medical care, and the trans body is at the center of this documentary. More than one story emerges of people wanting to have sex reassignment but not being able to afford the procedure, wanting to just do it themselves. Linda actually did castrate herself while incarcerated – first slicing off her testicles in protest, during a seven year stretch, for not being treated for Gender Identity Disorder (GID). Then, following hospitalization that cost the state of Idaho $60,000, Linda, while being mocked by the warden and police, forced to expose her genitals, and repeatedly denied treatment, cut her penis off with a razor and flushed it down a toilet. This is the only film in the set that I chose to look at in which the spectator is confronted with images of what the genitals of a self-made transwoman look like.

Linda filed a lawsuit on her own and won, received therapy and moved to a medical facility. She also won a specific policy for transsexuals in Idaho that was published and is on the record that allows for treatment. But now, out of prison, Linda is unemployable, homeless, jobless, and turning back to crime, working as a sex worker but was deemed too masculine, and considered too feminine to work in oil fields. So then, Linda took to stealing copper wire and landed back in prison, a men’s prison, again, despite the absence of male genitalia.

Scholar Suzanne J. Kessler would like to see “genitals be taken less seriously because it’s in that position that relief from gender might be found,” which is a nice idea in theory, from a standpoint of eliminating binaries, but for transwomen like Linda who are living on the fringes, living truly impossible lives, taking away the importance of genitals, the physical expression of which are often central to the transgender body and trans discourse, that theory now seems dated, almost rendering an impossible life even more impossible. (“Introduction: The Primacy of Gender Attribution”, Gender: an Ethnomethodological Approach. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998: p. 1 - 20)

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