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“Gender Bending
or Gender Defending?”

Practice and Representation in the Negotiation
of Sex and Gender amongst Manchester’s Transgendered

A Part IIB Dissertation
by James Johnston

This dissertation is approximately 30 - A4 size pages if you would like to print it off for reading.


This dissertation is the final product of a long period of planning, discussion and writing, not to mention the actual fieldwork in Manchester.  A large number of people helped me throughout with their suggestions and comments, or just by listening to my ideas.  Specifically, out of those in Cambridge, I would like to thank Dr Benson, my supervisor, and Dr Watson, my Director of Studies, as well as Drs Ferme and Pine, who helped at stages during the year.  My friends were very generous with their time; thank you Tom for proofreading, Gisa for making me think harder about ‘identities’, and Marta for adding in my missing commas.

It was in Manchester, however, that I received the most invaluable help.  My brother, Robert, and his girlfriend, Richelle, were happy (most of the time) to let me stay with them at a period when they both under great stress with their own work.  But most of all, I cannot thank enough the members of Northern Concord who allowed me into their club, and to gain a glimpse of their lives.  They made Manchester real for me.


  • Introduction

  • Spaces and Places of Transgender Identities –  ‘Freedom’ and Performance

  • (Auto)biographies of Transgender Identities – Introspection and Retrospection

  • Identity Politics and Disabled Bodies

  • Phenomenologies and Physiologies of Transgender Identities

  • Conclusion – Bending or Defending?

  • Appendix 1:    Medical Narratives of Transgenderism

  • Appendix 2:    Anthropological Narratives of Transgenderism

  • Bibliography

I know now (rather than think) that the structure of sex roles is maintained by the acquiescence of all the participants who accept their fate as natural and legitimate.

(Newton 1979: xvi)

Since everyone is in some degree or other an object for other people, as well as an object of other’s narratives, no one is ever entirely the author of her life.  People are never only active agents and subjects in their own history.  The interesting question in each case is: In what degree, and in what way, are they agents or patients?

(Asad 1993: 4)


  • Introduction

When talking to transgendered people in Manchester about their conceptions of their gender, those who identified as male-to-female transsexuals would frequently respond, ‘I don’t think I’m a woman, I am a woman!’ Encapsulated in this assertion is a paradox upon which the argument of this dissertation rests. Firstly, there is a rejection of any possibility of agency in one’s identification. There is no deliberation, no doubt, and there is certainly no choice. The fact that one is a woman is represented as inescapable and a known fact, and identification as a woman is thus core in one’s consciousness of one’s ‘identity’, which by extension must contain an essential gendered aspect – a ‘gendered-essence’.

Secondly, in the transsexuals’ statement, the category ‘woman’ is taken to be definite and fixed; a person’s identification as such is not something that needs to be thought about; it is simply known from that ‘gendered-essence’ referred to above. Yet here is the paradox: for the identification of transsexuals as women serves simultaneously to challenge many popular and biological definitions of the category. From this, it is clear that transsexuality, and I will argue transvestism too, cannot be seen simply as either reproducing or challenging dominant ideas of gender and sex as has frequently been argued.

These mixed re-presentations of transgendered people have emerged from both academic debates and in popular arenas of debate, such as television chat shows. In academia, attitudes have ranged from those who see them as ‘gender bending’ – blurring distinctions and breaking down restrictive divisions between men and women – to, at the other extreme, those who see them as ‘gender defenders’ – the ultimate defenders of gender inequalities, part of a male conspiracy that reinforces male constructions of the hyper-feminine. Almost all these accounts, however, have come from non-transgendered people and are based on dominant conceptions of ‘transsexuality’ and ‘transvestism’, often deriving from medical and psychiatric discourses. As a result, these attitudes, and theories based on these attitudes, have ignored the reality of transgenderism as it is practised – in secret or in public – in the daily lives of transgendered people.

By reversing the emphasis, and making transgendered people central to my research, yet considering how other narratives and discourses of transgenderism are taken up by the transgendered, I aim to challenge many of these previous representations of transgenderism. With reference to the research I conducted in Manchester, I aim to critique essentialising ‘explanations’ of ‘transsexual identity’ and ‘transvestite identity’, instead considering how the self-conception and self-expression of those who identify as transgendered emerges contextually from transgendered subjectivities. These subjectivities are argued to have formed within popular and disciplinary discourses on sex, gender and ideas of the ‘self’. However, transgendered subjectivities are not simply formed by passive acceptance or reproduction of others’ discourses. Rather they must be understood as emerging from a complex web of power relations, which can involve the transgendered in more or less dominant positions. This dissertation attempts a consideration of the formation of transgendered subjectivities by looking at the most important of the power relations in which I perceived the transgendered people I encountered to be involved.

I begin, in Section 2, by introducing the fieldwork locations, considering how in some locations transgender identity appears to be the expression of an ‘essential core’, while in other locations transgendered people act and present themselves in ways that appear to produce and convey personal ‘truths’ able to compete with those of dominant/popular discourses.

In Section 3, I look at transgendered ‘narratives of the self’, considering the impact of the disciplinary discourses of medicine and folk-studies/anthropology on the way the transgendered ‘self’ is experienced and represented. A person’s identification as transgendered is seen to occur within a ‘dominant’ discourse on sex, gender and sexuality; the explanations and justifications of the transgendered ‘self’ seem determined by habitus, which serves to reproduce these discourses. I also consider how the retrospection and introspection of the transgendered posits an ‘essential inner-core’ to their identity.

In Section 4, I argue that ‘transsexual’ and ‘transvestite’ identities are informed by the negotiations of the power relationships between the transgendered themselves, and between the transgendered and the bodies that provide access to the treatment and surgery desired. In this way, the transgendered pathologise their condition, presenting themselves as suffering from a disorder, to justify and to validate their claims for surgery.

Section 5 attempts to reconcile the different practices of the transgendered, and their various representations of the self and the body, by considering the idea of transgendered subjectivities, where the experience of an ‘interiority’ is a consequence of the ‘in folding’ of discourse. This approach transcends the dichotomy of ‘gender bending or gender defending’, by proposing that the concept of the ‘transgendered self’ is itself partly a product of discourse, as this impacts on the way the ‘gendered essence’ is posited, experienced and expressed. Therefore, while the transgendered agent is able to act strategically, negotiating within power relations with others, this aspect of their practice seems partly a product of wider discourses, including discourse on gender.

Throughout my ethnography it is clear that disciplinary knowledge’s, particularly of medicine, psychiatry, psychology and folk-studies/anthropology, are central both to the formation of transgendered subjectivities, and to the expression of the corresponding transgender identities, providing, as they do, definitions, diagnosis and possibly treatment. In the appendices, I present the central themes of the medical and anthropological narratives in order to provide further insight into the influence of these discourses on the transgendered. My description of these narratives is necessarily simplified and selective, as both disciplines have produced much work on the relevant issues, and opinions are far from unanimous. My focus, however, is on how the narratives of the two disciplines are received, understood and used by transgendered people.

  • Spaces and Places of Transgender Identities – ‘Freedom’ and Performance

Shortly after two in the morning, the last of those who had been drinking, dancing or chatting inside ‘Napoleons’ would be ushered out onto the street. From there they might go to catch a minicab or queue for a kebab, both supplied by gay-friendly firms operating in the Village – Manchester’s lesbian and gay area. As my friends dispersed, returning to their homes in the estates and suburbs of Manchester, I was fortunate to be able to walk back to my brother’s apartment, less than a hundred metres from Canal Street. This residence was one of the ‘luxury apartments’ characteristic of the ‘regenerated area’ east of Manchester’s city centre. The Village itself is part of this urban renewal – the City Council’s effort to give Manchester an exciting, diverse and cosmopolitan image – and it successfully attracts revellers, tourists and businesses. Indeed, its attraction is such that many straight people come to the Village, and with them come businesses looking for custom. It is the increasing number of straight people and businesses in the Village that led to the dropping of the ‘Gay’ from the name ‘Gay Village’.

The Village is thus shared space, where gays and others go to see and be seen, by each other and ‘queer spotters’, but the area remains relatively tolerant and open; I heard few accounts of violence, and these only late at night. It is the place where the transgendered people, with whom I socialised, felt safest – describing it as a ‘refuge’ amongst the larger gay minority. While many of the bars and clubs in the village employ professional female-impersonators and transgendered emcees and DJs, the movement of most of the transgendered people I met was more restricted. They tended to attend only two of the Village’s venues regularly: Napoleons and The Hollywood Showbar – the venue for The Northern Concord.

*                       *                       *

The Northern Concord, a club for transsexuals and transvestites in the Village, has been running under its present name since 1986, but was formed out of the ashes of the original Manchester TV/TS group that had been running since 1965 in one form or another. The club was my first point of contact with transgendered people in Manchester, and it was there that I met most of the transgendered people who feature in this ethnography.

On the summer evening in which I first attended Northern Concord, I was noticeably apprehensive. I had arrived in Manchester only a few days before and, though staying just outside the Village, was not yet familiar with the area. The Hollywood Showbar advertises as a gay-only space, requiring membership in order to guarantee customer safety. Though I had been assured this was not actually the case, and that there was often no-one on the door, and although I had already been invited to attend Northern Concord by the club’s organiser, Jenny Baker, I was still concerned about what would happen upon my arrival. I had never been in a gay bar, nor knowingly met a transsexual or transvestite, and I did not know what to expect.

As it turned out, I need not have worried; as it was still quite early in the evening the Showbar was quiet, and the door was unstaffed. I entered, and ascended the stairs by the entrance to the Piano Bar, where Northern Concord meets every Wednesday evening. A table was set up at the near end of the room, and behind it sat two women. Jenny had not told anyone I would be coming, and they appeared suspicious – not that I had illicit motives, but rather that I was merely making excuses, embarrassed to admit my own transgenderism. Assuring them that this was not the case, I said I had come to observe and talk with people, if they had no objections about me doing so.

My concerns about coming to the club, as an outsider, to ‘study’ the members, did not seem to be shared by those I spoke to that evening, or in the coming weeks. To my knowledge, no-one objected, some even seemed to enjoy talking to me, making their points and attitudes known. Nor were many of them strangers to the idea that others would be interested in them; in the previous months a student sociologist had attended the club, and many of the members had previously had contact with doctors, psychologists or psychiatrists on issues relating to their gender. Initially, I saw this only as facilitating my purpose at the club, allowing me to make contacts and conversation. Later, it became clear that the associations made between myself and these other researchers and professionals, and the nature and ease of these conversations represented and revealed an important aspect of the nature of the transgendered people’s identity. This is a point developed in Section 3.

Gaining the impression that the club members were relaxed about my presence, I too began to relax. The women at the door called over Mary, the club’s ‘hostess’, and she talked to me about herself and began introducing me to other members. Mary, a retired computer engineer, was in her early sixties and identified as a transvestite. She dressed extrovertly and was known for her very short skirts; however her strongly masculine facial features meant that she was not convincing to me as a woman. From Mary I learnt that the two women at the door, Sally and Lucy, were both male-to-female transsexuals. Sally, who was seventeen, had dropped out of school at fourteen, because of the adverse reaction to her transsexuality. She had since ‘transitioned’ (was living full time as a woman), though she had only just begun to take female hormones. Despite this, Sally was very convincing to me as a woman of her age, in both appearance and speech. Sally lived on her own in Hume in Manchester, having left the home of her mother and stepfather. She worked on premium rate telephone lines. Sally and I became friendly during my time at the club and she was my main source of introduction to transgendered people in the club and the Village. I felt more at ease with her partly because she was closer to my age than most of those attending, but also because she was always ready and keen to talk to me. I suspect that Sally’s reaction to me was, to a large extent, motivated by the fact that she had had little contact with non-gay, non-transvestite men of a similar age to herself.

While numbers and proportions fluctuated from week to week, and during the evening, approximately 40-50 people attended the club each week, the majority of those recognised themselves as men and took the label transvestite. There were typically about half-a-dozen people whose identity as male-to-female transsexuals was undisputed, and a similar number who considered themselves to be male-to-female transsexuals, but were not necessarily accepted as such by others at the club, particularly the undisputed transsexuals. There were also occasionally one or two female-to-male transsexuals, as well as shemales, and people who considered themselves androgynous, i.e. neither male nor female. Where the terms ‘transvestite’ and ‘transsexual’ are used, I am referring, except where explicitly indicated, to male transvestites and male-to-female transsexuals as my contact was mainly with people who identified as such.

None of the club members I met lived in the Village, and though several lived nearby, many travelled significant distances to attend the club. Consequently, those attending varied each week, with those travelling the furthest distances attending more rarely. Northern Concord claims a membership ‘in excess of 450…in the UK and around the world’. Both regulars and less frequent attendees described the appeal of the club as the sense that that they were more ‘free’ to do what they liked, or to be themselves there. It was this opportunity, felt to be rare, that encouraged people to come to the club from afar. For Clare, a self-identifying transvestite about 60 years old, the club allowed her to ‘talk about things in a way men normally don’t’, and to dress in the 1950s outfits with remarkably large false busts that greatly appealed to her. For others it was their only chance to dress en femme, the possibility being denied even at home by family members, while for others, it was the first stage of an attempt to take on female identity permanently.

The ‘freedom’ appreciated at the Concord was the opportunity to express oneself, in particular that part of the self, described as ‘true’, ‘inner’ or ‘the other side of my personality’, which is normally kept private in the case of transvestites or transsexuals prior to transitioning fulltime. But the notion of ‘privacy’ and the corresponding ideas of ‘private’ and ‘public’ are not simple issues when considering the identity of transgendered people. Attendance at the club may provide the only opportunity that people have to be their ‘true-self’ or to reveal their ‘inner-self’ to others; but here they may wish to keep their ‘public’, outside identity ‘private’ out of fear of repercussions and exposure. Outside of the club, amongst family and at work, the reverse situation may be the case. Transvestite identities especially are frequently kept secret from family and at work, for years if not a lifetime. Thus neither identity is easily labelled ‘public’ or ‘private’; the terms, and their use in reference to locations, are necessarily understood in context. The idea of ‘privacy’ is used more generally, however, when people discuss the widely felt need to keep the two identities separate.

Transgender or gender identity thus appears not always to be paramount in the daily life of club members, but an aspect of identity sometimes more relevant and explicit than at other times. Nonetheless, members consider attending the club to be an occasion of freedom, where they feel they can demonstrate their desire to realise their transgendered identity. This raises two issues, which will be further considered in later sections. Firstly, members perceive their gender identity as being determined by and expressive of an internal, ontological core. This is in contrast with the ideas of Judith Butler, a leading ‘queer theorist’, who describes such a belief about gender as an ‘illusion’. She argues that drag subverts the sex/gender continuum, perceived as undifferentiated in dominant heterosexual gender-identities, exposing gender as produced performatively, not expressive of an internal reality (Butler 1990, 136-7). Secondly, members seem to feel a need to express their perceived gender ‘core’, for it to be revealed and contemplated; their gender is not a simple given, but requires attention and effort.

To the observer, the appearance and behaviour of the members in attendance at Northern Concord might be regarded as challenging dominant stereotypes of maleness and femaleness – a fine example, perhaps, of ‘gender bending’. On any given week it was possible to see biological males wearing female clothes varying from office suits to PVC outfits. Some might be drinking gin-and-tonics with a straw, but others might have a pint of bitter in hand. Many wore typically female clothes, yet made no effort to appear female in other respects; on one occasion, there was a bearded transvestite in attendance. At the level of practice, many of the club members seemed to be taking a ‘pick-and-mix’ attitude towards their gender and dress that to an outsider might seem to destabilise any continuity between physical (birth) sex, gender and sexuality. While such arguments might be more easily applied to transvestites, shemales and drag queens, post-operative transsexuals may also be represented as violations of the continuum between genetic or birth sex, and adult gender behaviour – GRS is thus seen as a form of gross parody.

Butler argues that drag, fetish and parody are acts of ‘performativity’ – the explicit performance of a gender, as stereotype, as an affirmation of the fact that minority identities are ‘constituted in part within the very matrix of power that…[they are]…compelled both to reiterate and to oppose’ (Butler, 1991: 17). But more than this, mimicry is merely a reflection of the process by which all genders are achieved, and therefore it exposes the arbitrariness and oppression inherent to all ideas of gender. Transgendered people’s practice can be seen as performativity, but it is problematic to assume an intention to destabilise dominant ideas of gender. In this sense, performativity is a representation made of the transgendered, not an inevitable aspect of their practice. As will become clear throughout, the descriptions transgendered people made of themselves reproduced conventional ideas about the differences between maleness and femaleness, and expressed no desire to challenge these categories. On the other hand, the simple association made between gender and physical sex was challenged.

While unconventional dress and style is accepted at Northern Concord, it is not likely to be met with such ready approval on journeys to and from the club. For this reason, Northern Concord provides changing facilities for those who feel unable to travel to the club already dressed en femme. This is of particular use for those members who are unable to ‘pass’ in public, and therefore are not willing to risk threats and embarrassment by dressing before arriving at the club. ‘Passing’, as transgendered people use the term, is the technique of appearing in public as the sex/gender that has been adopted, whether permanently or at a particular period, as opposed to the phenotypic sex of birth, without raising doubt in those who see and interact with the person concerned. For clarity: while those who identify as transvestites may aim to ‘pass’ as woman, for transsexuals, who identify as women, the concern is more accurately expressed as not being mistaken for a man.

Passing thus represents a concern with performance, and the control of presentation and reception of information about a person’s identity. Following Goffman’s sociological analysis of social life as a ‘theatrical performance’ involving performer and audience (Goffman 1969, ix), it can be said that for the transgendered person attempting to pass, clothes, hairstyle and body movements are part of the impression intentionally given out in order to influence the observers definition of the situation (i.e. woman walking down the street, rather than man walking down the street) and hence their reaction. As important as giving out the correct impression, is concealing ‘destructive information’ (Goffman 1969, 123) such as facial hair, an Adam’s apple or a masculine voice, which would discredit any performance. Passing thus represents a transgendered person’s attempt to take control over their audience, and enables them to conduct themselves without the threat of aggressive reactions that may arise if ‘spotted’. This need to be convincing, for reasons of personal safety, prevents many transgendered people from taking risks discouraging many from dressing en femme in public, and others from departing from conventional female dress. Successful passing thus encourages an ‘over-determined’ femininity, i.e. make-up, long fingernails and skirts not jeans.

*                       *                       *

At 11pm, the Northern Concord’s weekly raffle for a bottle of wine would take place, before the Piano Bar was opened up for Hollywood’s regular customers, and most of those remaining at the Concord, particularly the transsexuals, would walk the short distance to Napoleons nightclub. Napoleons is an anonymous building during the day, with its pub-like façade obscured by boarded up windows and a solid, closed door. In the evenings it opens up, letting in the transgendered for free but charging ‘tranny-fanciers’. Before attending Napoleons for the first time, Sally described it to me as the place where ‘transsexuals and transvestites go to get picked up by tranny-fanciers’, and the entry arrangement suggested a similar idea. However, on none of the occasions that I attended Napoleons did I witness any actual coupling going on. Indeed I only saw one couple involving a transgendered woman and her male partner, and they had arrived together. Such an arrangement would be to the contrary of much of what I was told by transvestites and transsexuals about their sexuality: the large majority of those identifying as transvestites were ‘straight men’, while ‘bisexuality’ and ‘lesbianism’ were described as common amongst transsexuals, some of whom, including Lucy, described themselves as ‘disinterested’ in sex.

Despite the variety of sexualities claimed by the Concord members, and the apparent lack of contact between the transgendered and non-transgendered at Napoleons, there was some pretence of sexualised interaction amongst the fun of chatting to friends and dancing. As Sally moved round the club, introducing me to other transgendered people and gay men she knew, there were men – ‘tranny-fanciers’ – perched on stools or standing at the bar, alone or in small groups, providing an audience for the transgendered. Gossip was also rife about who fancied whom, and I was not spared from this; indeed it often felt uncomfortably as if I was the focus of it.

In contrast to the ‘freedom’ felt to be provided by Northern Concord, I consider the behaviour of the transgendered at Napoleons to be a form of institutionalised performance in which the interaction between the transgendered and the ‘tranny-fanciers’ is used by the transgendered to construct ‘the reality’ of the gender with which they identify. Berger and Luckman write ‘significant others occupy a central position in the economy of reality-maintenance. They are particularly important for the ongoing confirmation of that crucial element of reality we call identity’ (1966, 170). While Berger and Luckman were principally concerned with family relations, for the transgendered, family are more likely to challenge the gender they identify with. Sexualised performance and gossip in which they take on a ‘female role’, does however serve to confirm ‘their reality’ with the complicity of an audience restricted by the bouncers on the door. Such behaviour is unlikely to destabilise dominant discourses on gender, for the ‘reality producing’ performances in Napoleons, like the ‘freedom of expression’ in Northern Concord, are not publicly visible. Both these spaces are thus in contrast to the open streets of Manchester and the Village, where the transgendered hope to ‘pass’. In Section 3, I proceed to consider further this relation between discourses on gender and the way in which the members of Northern Concord conceive of, and express, their ‘transgender identity’.

  • (Auto) biographies of Transgender Identities – Introspection and Retrospection

Remembering Joe….

Joe died in 1998 at the ripe old age of 87, a former Northern Concord…member…

He came late to share his full identity with others in 1974, but derived solace and pleasure from the company of members of the Beaumont Society and Northern Concord. Unfortunately his failing health distanced him from the groups in later years.

Joe’s father, a Lakeland artist…also shared a dual identity, unknown to Joe until after his death.

Betty, his daughter told me that Jimmie dressed when painting, but his son never knew. Remarkably we have three generations of transgendered family members.

Family legend via Betty, claims relationship to Dame Durden, who maintained a household of 13 ‘maids-in-waiting’, in the 17th Century…

The family may come from Dardanians relocated from Dardania upon the Roman conquest of Illyrium. …The Dardanians moved east from Troy where they were one of the 10 tribes… between Troy and the Dardanelles…

…It is interesting that the first mentioned Amazons lived not far from Troy, and that there are traditions of gender/body manipulation among the Bogomils and others in the Balkan area that was once Dardania.

The Mother Goose of pantomime was, up to 50 years ago, often called Dame Durden. Suggesting, to me at least, an indication of genetic continuity for some wide gender-identity tradition.

(Cross Talk, No. 40: 23-24, my emphasis)

Joe’s obituary, which appeared in Northern Concord’s club magazine, illustrates many of the themes that were characteristic of the way club members spoke about their lives and their feelings about transgenderism. As mentioned in Section 2, conversation with those at the club came easily, and they readily recounted narratives of their life histories including their opinions about transgenderism generally, and their own specific case. Frequently, narratives would go back to early childhood memories, or forward to possibilities of a complete transition at some time in the future. By considering Joe’s obituary and other fieldwork examples, I will first consider the discursive influence of ‘psy-science’ and folk studies/anthropological narratives about transgenderism on the narratives of the self of transgendered people. Secondly, I will consider the way in which these narratives both constitute and reflect transgendered subjectivities that search for an inner-depth to their identity, which is felt to be necessary to find, explain and express.

Joe’s obituary can be read as an example of how a member of Northern Concord has developed a personal narrative of transgenderism that provides an explanation of her transgenderism. Here, a trans-cultural and trans-historical phenomenon of transgenderism is produced by drawing upon and incorporating folk/anthropological accounts of people and groups whose practices depart from conventional Western ideas of gender. From an outsider’s perspective, the account may appear highly implausible jumping through time and space, with its references to Amazons, and linking the present-day to 17th Century Britain, and then to Ancient Troy. However, the obituary’s inclusion in the club magazine indicates that other club members find such narratives congenial. By linking these disparate practices, and claiming them as a heritage to an alternative gender identity, this narrative seeks to ‘denaturalise’ western gender dichotomies: folk/anthropological ‘knowledge’ and the discipline’s attempts at cross-cultural comparison are deployed in order to represent transgenderism, or at least a type of transgenderism, as a specific, identifiable condition – a ‘gender-identity tradition’, as the obituary puts it.

Common to many of the narratives I heard, especially those of people who had come to acknowledge their condition in adult life, was a phase in which people sought to find out about their condition, in order to understand what was ‘wrong’ with them, and sometimes to look for a ‘cure’. Many club members had read widely about gender-identity issues, and were aware of ideas and theories from medicine, the psy-sciences, and of the wide variety of occurrences of what may be considered ‘transgendered phenomena’ present in other cultures and past times. Indeed, the club magazine has stories about all these issues, written by members or collected from newspapers. Disciplinary narratives thus form an essential part of most transgendered people’s definitions of transgendered identities, and hence their understanding of their own identity. Understandings of identity are developed through these discourses, which are encountered through interaction with other members, the media, and – of course – the medical profession.

Foucault links discourse to power, knowledge and truth (1980), and with regard to the transgendered person it is clear that medical and psy-science practitioners have a power/knowledge in contemporary Britain that legitimates their narrative as ‘truth’. Anthropological and historical texts are also granted some legitimacy in British society, thus they too contribute to a discursive truth. One could argue, following Bourdieu, that the narratives of the transgendered that draw upon aspects of medical and anthropological narratives, are attempting to ‘regularise’ the identity of the transgendered with the dominant discourses of sex and gender,

The agent who ‘regularises’ his situation or puts himself in the right is simply beating the group at its own game; in abiding by the rules, falling into line with good form, he wins the group over to his side by ostentatiously honouring the values the group honours. (Bourdieu 1977, 22)

The creativity of the transgendered subject may be seen as ‘intentionless invention of regulated improvisation’, restricted by the ‘habitus’ as it is formed within the general sex/gender discourse (79). The ‘habitus’ of the transgendered seems partly determined by their weak position in power relations with the academics and professionals, whose disciplines equip them with great ‘symbolic capital’ (171-183). This capital gives them the authority to create and define concepts and identities, such as sex, gender, transsexual and transvestite, the existence of which is ‘objectively real’ to the transgendered people who encounter them, and who consequently use them, reproducing these definitions.

The relation of transgendered people’s ideas of self to dominant gender discourses has preoccupied many writers, for example in The Female Eunuch (1971), Germaine Greer described transsexual model April Ashley as ‘a casualty of the polarity of the sexes’ (72). The most extensive critique, however, came from Janice Raymond (1980), a cultural feminist, who claimed that transsexuals seeking to change their body are reinforcing the discursive continuum of sex/gender by changing their physical sex to correspond to the gender that the dominant discourse and stereotypes consider antithetic to original anatomical sex. For Raymond, the phenomenon of transsexuality represents a male conspiracy that reinforces these gender stereotypes, and establishes discursive normativity. I would agree that many transsexual people are profoundly implicated in dominant discourses on gender. However, whether this reinforces the discourse is less dependent on the self-representations of the transgendered than on the reception and re-presentation of transsexuals in popular discourse. Their own intentions are only one aspect of their contribution to any discourse. It is also ironic that in refuting any basis for gender-identity other than anatomical sex, and retaining men and women as discrete categories, Raymond is serving to reify the categories she wants to challenge.

Rather than considering the influence on gender discourse on transgendered people in the discrete terms of reinforcement or opposition, I feel it is more illuminating to consider the issue from the perspective of ‘ethics’ (Foucault 1987, 2000a). By this I refer to Foucault’s argument that people ‘constitute themselves as subjects’ through ‘setting up and developing relationships with the self’, ‘self reflection’, ‘self-examination’, ‘the decipherment of the self by oneself’ and ‘the transformations that one seeks to accomplish with oneself as object’ (1987: 29). Searches for causes, and claims of explanation in transgendered narratives are thus the product of a particular relationship to the self, based on continuity between childhood and adulthood, and between a perceived identity and the feelings thought to be expressive of it. The transgendered self – an ‘essential’ core to identity – is thus produced through the personal narratives that present feelings as expressive of such an inner-self.

This type of relationship to the self is not developed independently in the transgendered’s narratives; rather it is a consequence of their interaction with academic disciplines, with which I was complicit as an ‘agent of the ‘modern’’ (Collier 1997, 10). While conversation with club members came easily, its direction often seemed out of my control. People assumed that I wanted to know about their beliefs about their personal transgender identity – its origins in childhood or later, what feelings and experiences it involves etc. – or their beliefs about transgenderism in general – what causes it, what is the difference between transvestites and transsexuals and so on. I did not encourage such responses, but my position in the members’ lives was associated with that of others who questioned them about their experiences directly, such as doctors, psychiatrists, and psychologists. Rose argues that new ways of understanding the self have developed widely as a result of the extreme ‘generosity’ of the psy-sciences, meaning the extreme penetrative capacity of their ‘vocabularies, explanations, …types of judgement… 'And models of selfhood’ (Rose 1996, 33-4). Concord members themselves often shared the interest of academics in understanding transgenderism and themselves, and had frequently thought and sometimes learnt about such issues in the style of the psy-sciences, forming definite opinions and narratives about themselves and others.

This is well illustrated by the retrospective narratives of life history provided by club members. Reflecting on childhood experiences members would frequently point to what they saw as behavioural characteristics that set them apart – signs of their transvestism or transsexualism that they did not realise or understand at the time. For example, Caroline, who has Kleinfelter’s Syndrome, was particularly keen to talk about her condition, and over the course of several conversations I learned a lot about the way she felt about her life, gender and body. In an autobiographical piece that Caroline wrote for me, she writes, ‘Although born a boy with a physical abnormality, from the very moment of birth and upon advice from doctors Caroline was regularly dressed as a girl, and was nearly christened a ‘girl’. It felt right! …, at about the age of 13 or 14 I realised my gender was not acceptable to everyone and was being suppressed gently and gradually…At 17 years of age my testicles finally dropped! I was steered towards masculinity and my female side was suppressed at every opportunity. My father took charge of my behaviour and I was not allowed to be ‘sissieish’ at all. … Life from early teens to adulthood and marriage was at the least difficult, and at the most desperate. I wasn’t like the other lads. I didn’t like football, didn’t want muscles, didn’t like wearing jeans and with very few exceptions I would refuse to wear boys’ shoes…I was happier with the softer, gentler side of life that girls enjoyed! …Throughout life I was ridiculed for everything from not wanting to be a cowboy or soldier. Eating with small mouthfuls…walking with a wiggle, reading girls magazines, forever looking in the mirror.’

Caroline’s narrative relates her current identification as transgendered to past experiences and feelings that revealed and explained to her the nature of her identity. Hermaphroditism, combined with early childhood socialisation, is indicated as leading to her identification with the ‘gentler side of life’ of girls. Another club member, Suzanne explained that she only ‘realised’ she was a transsexual after seeing a psychiatrist who raised the issue. Later she ‘remembered’ always preferring girl’s company and girl’s clothes as a child. In these narratives, the present predicament is explained in terms of life-history events, a process which defines the present as well as the past. It appears then that it is by recognising and identifying one’s past as a stereotyped transgendered life-history (which provides explanations and/or origins for transgendered behaviour and sentiments) that identification of the self with a transgender identity occurs. Narratives of the transgendered self thus produce an idea of a true-self (for transsexuals) or alternative self (for transvestites), and it is by adopting a transgender identity that this self can be expressed.

In Section 2, I suggested that Northern Concord members appreciated the club for the ‘freedom’ it was felt to allow for the expression of one’s true- or inner-self, but these selves are always described as prior and discovered through introspection and retrospection. This appears to contradict Foucault’s argument that ‘Modern man…is not the man who goes off to discover himself, his secrets and his hidden truth; he is the man who tries to invent himself. This modernity…compels him to face the task of producing himself’ (Foucault 2000b, 310). Foucault here opposes discovery and production of the self, but in the case of transgender identities, the self is produced as something hidden, which must be discovered, and then expressed. Thus the ‘freedom’ felt at the club also involves obligations: to discover, diagnose and explain one’s ‘true’ self, and to constitute a transgender identity by expressing this internal self in outward action.

Some members had managed to escape this obligation to interrogate the self, initiating or partaking in alternative discourses on transgenderism. For instance, Mary, after going through a period of trying to understand her transvestism, had come to the decision that it was ‘easier just to be a ‘transvestite’ than to worry about what it meant’. While Clare compared the pleasure she gained from wearing her 1950s clothing to the pleasure she gained from a good wine or a beautiful painting. This approach moved transvestism from the domain of psychological, gender or social disorder and instead placing it with wine and art as aesthetic choice. Rather than diagnosing transgenderism in terms that reproduced dominant ideas about sex and gender, this explanation placed the emphasis on personal taste. Clare also introduced me to the work of Vernon Coleman, a physician who stresses the role of transvestism in combating stress, and as a root to male emancipation, overturning modern sexual inequalities in which men are denied the opportunities to relax and show their emotions (Coleman 1996). Coleman suggests that over-pressured men should try dressing in women’s clothes to relieve their stress. Transvestism here is a strategic choice rather than the irrepressible expression of a person’s self.

While members attended Northern Concord for the opportunity to express their true or other gendered self, at other times in their daily lives and their life-histories the expression of this gender seems not to be so central to their conception of identity. In this respect, the transgender of club members can be considered as a contingent and contextual aspect of their ‘identity’. Identity in this sense becomes troublesome, no longer an immutable aspect of one’s personality – always there, always impacting one’s experiences and effecting one’s decisions – rather the process of ‘identification as’, and ‘being identified with’ becomes more important. Riley, considering the category of ‘woman’, has asked, ‘Ain’t I a fluctuating identity?’ thereby refusing a passive acceptance of a woman’s identity (Riley 1988, 1). She states that, ‘it is not possible to live twenty-four hours a day soaked in the immediate nature of one’s sex. Gendered self-consciousness has, mercifully, a flickering nature’. Gender is thus the product of particular instances and occasions, during which we are seen, and/or see ourselves, with a gendered gaze.

Caroline’s life had always been much more than her own sex. She enjoyed her work, her children, and her relationships; gender was just one aspect of her identity, along with that of partner, parent, athlete and DJ. But these other aspects of identity could also be constitutive of a gendered role. For Caroline was, on occasion, father not just parent, and husband not just partner. Sally’s job on telephone chat lines was similarly both able to produce an identity as worker, and because of her all-female colleagues and the sexual nature of the calls, able to produce a female-gendered self-consciousness.

Gender identity might not be a constant part of one’s self-conception, but at certain points in life it is difficult to make it disappear. In life-history narratives, transsexuals would frequently refer to their first days at school, when they were divided into boys and girls, as being the stage when they realised they identified with girls. In the narratives of those who came to the club at a later age, it was often the moving-out of children, divorce or retirement that was said to have enabled members to ‘come out of the closet’. This would suggest that gender is less defined, and consequently more flexible, for those who have moved out of the productive and reproductive years of life. The importance of the themes of production and reproduction is suggested by several members, who told me they felt they were transsexuals, but would only have GRS in certain circumstances. Kate said she wanted to have surgery, but needed a guarantee of continued employment, something she didn’t feel she had in her job as a barrister. For Suzanne it was if she, like her father, got prostate cancer, as she believed that castration was one possible treatment.

  • Identity Politics and Disabled Bodies

So far, I have generally concentrated on issues of identity common to all those people who I call ‘transgendered’. I intend now to rectify this by illustrating that the main transgendered identities of transsexual and transvestite are complex, contested and mutually constituted. While in attendance at Northern Concord, a transgender identity, held broadly in common, may form an aspect of the identity of a wide variety of people; in certain circumstances members represent themselves as united or may actually join together for a cause identifying as a ‘community’. However, the club also provides the opportunity for division and contrast through which separate transvestite and transsexual identities can be produced. 

This attitude towards changing facilities signals a significant difference in the stereotypic life-histories of transsexuals and transvestites. Many transvestites will never feel the need to dress en femme outside the home, and those that do attend the club are likely to have gone through a long period of denial, or dressing at home, before they gain sufficient confidence to attend the club. Transsexuals, similarly, will have needed to reach a point of identifying themselves as transgendered before they would attend the club. In time, transsexuals will often aspire to total integration into society – aiming to complete GRS, ‘pass’ full-time, and drop the ‘transsexual’ identity that one has as a club member for a ‘female’ identity away from the club. Club membership is therefore always partial or transient in transgendered people’s life histories, but differently so for those who locate themselves within transsexual and transvestite life-histories.

Many of those who have written on the subject of transgenderism have taken for granted the categories of transvestite and transsexual as they appear in the medical narrative of transgenderism. In practice, between those who identify as transvestites and those, like Sally, whom no-one at the club disputed was a transsexual, there are a significant number of transgendered people whose identity as transvestite or transsexual is disputed. Amongst the members of Northern Concord, it seemed a certain prestige was attached to transsexuality as an identity. Many who claimed to be transsexuals themselves would exclude others with less convincingly typical transsexual life-histories. At one extreme, Kelly, who was in her thirties during my research, but who had been living as a female since running away from home in her early teens, told me that she had only ever met three or four other ‘proper transsexuals’, one of whom was Sally. For Kelly, a ‘true transsexual’ is unable to live as a male and as a consequence will transition while still a child. At the other extreme, Rachael, who was currently undergoing transition, assured me that her female psychiatrist must have a gender identity problem herself, as she drove a sports car, and was very aggressive. Identity as transvestite or transsexual is thus subjective and flexible rather than discrete, with those with the best claims to transsexual identity (the most respected claims came from post-operative transsexuals, those who transitioned young, and those living full time as women and ‘passing’ convincingly) tending to refute the transsexuality of those with lesser claims.

The exclusiveness and prestige attached to the transsexual identity was thus maintained through fission and slander: ‘I don’t know what she is, but she definitely isn’t a transsexual’; ‘she says she’s a transsexual, but she’s not really’; ‘many transvestites want to be transsexuals, but transsexuals wouldn’t wish it on their worst enemy’. This latter phrase was particularly common, and indicates the perception that despite being exclusive, transsexuality was considered a serious problem – an inescapable burden. This apparent contradiction suggests that the privileging of the transsexual identity is related to its status as a generally acknowledged ‘condition’ or ‘disability’.

*                           *                           *

On the 1-3rd September 2000, Gendys 2000 – The Sixth International Gender Dysphoria Conference – was held at the University of Manchester. The conference sold itself as ‘Psychiatrists, Psychologists, Counsellors, Sociologists, Surgeons, Endocrinologists, Laser Specialists, Speech Therapists, Researchers, networking with the transgendered and transsexual community itself’. On Saturday evening, Dr. Annie McCloud, a psychiatrist from London, presented a talk entitled ‘Should Transsexuals be Feminists, a Personal Perspective on Empowerment?’. Dr. McCloud, herself a transsexual, had recently taken an MA in Medical Anthropology during her transitional year before GRS. Her talk presented her anthropologically informed account of gender and transsexualism, using cross-cultural material and a structuralist account of gender dichotomy. She argued for the rejection of the idea that transsexuals had an illness or a disorder, and that they should instead view themselves as individuals who are taking their place in a cultural, not natural, gender system. The talk may have intended to be positive and empowering for the transsexual members of the audience, but it was not particularly well received. Another transsexual woman, Sarah, was particularly upset, breaking into tears before leaving the room. I spoke to her later that evening; she was middle-aged and only occasionally in employment. We spoke about Dr McCloud’s talk, and I asked why she had been upset. She felt that arguing for a positive image for transsexuals was fine for those who could afford private treatment, like Dr McCloud, but for those like herself the only chance of obtaining the medical treatment they needed was if transsexualism was recognised as an illness that required a cure available on the NHS.

I suggest that the medical narratives on transgenderism, as well as the practicalities of achieving medical treatment, are significant determinants of the paradoxical understanding of transsexualism outlined above: as both desirable and a disorder. Indeed, to a large extent identity as a transsexual is desirable because it is a disorder. Medicine recognises transsexuality as a legitimate condition, identified by a person’s perception of having the body of one sex and the gender of another. Both sexed bodies and clear-cut gender identities are seen as ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ in western medical culture; the transsexual ‘problem’ is that the two are not properly aligned. As a disorder, transsexualism requires treatment; it is therefore in the interest of those who seek legitimacy and want to change sex to be identified as transsexuals, and for transsexualism to continue to be seen as a disorder. In contrast, transvestites have a very different image; they are seen to have impulses and desires that do not fit with clear-cut gender identities, and therefore are not ‘normal’ or ‘natural’. Instead, transvestism is widely considered a fetish or perversion – not normal, but not treatable nor legitimated by medicine.

Parsons (1951) proposed the idea of sickness as sanctioned social deviance, in which medical confirmation and treatment (i.e. return to compliance) was the reward for cooperation and acceptance of one’s condition as undesirable. Transsexuality as disability can be understood similarly, as enabling those identifying as transsexuals to escape moral condemnation, and gain the treatment they desire. In turn their bodies are reconciled with dominant stereotypes of gender identities. The production of transgendered life-history narratives, and thus transgendered identities, through interaction and compliance with the psy-sciences can be compared to the standardised, institutional alternative identities that Goffman argues are produced in asylums (Goffman 1968). Such an approach fails however to account for the often aggressive reaction to transsexuals in popular discourse, and moreover the status of transsexualism as an illness, worthy of treatment with public funds is far from uncontested. Waiting lists for treatment in some areas can be measured in decades, with more people joining the queue than treated each year. Still, however, in the media there has been opposition to any possibility of increased funding, with occasional suggestions that transsexualism is unworthy of treatment at all, and that it is merely a form of cosmetic surgery.

It is therefore necessary to consider the extent to which social and health policies are themselves ‘disabling’, and productive of disabled identities through the coercive relations possible between powerful government agencies and the people they deal with (Barnes, Mercer & Shakespeare 1999, 50). There is consequently an incentive for those identifying as transsexual to exclude others, to limit any perceived threat that transsexualism poses, in order to improve their own chances of treatment and their perception by the public.

Despite ‘disabling’ social and health policy, and being the recipients of categories and theories of disciplines able to legitimise their truths, transgendered people are able to act as more than just passive recipients of identities and the values attached to those identities. They are able to respond by claiming identities; they can ‘declare ‘I am that name’…in response to that history of identification and its ambiguous gifts and legacies’ (Rose 1996, 39). Claiming transsexual identity as a disability is thus strategic manipulation of the power relations between the transgendered and those that restrict their access, or condemn their access, to the medical procedures they desire. This is demonstrated by the case of Chris, who would occasionally attend the Northern Concord, though more often I would meet him later in the evening in Napoleons. Chris identified as androgynous, though he was born phenotypically female. He had worked as a design-technology teacher at a school in the North of England, and his desire not to be recognised as a woman gained media attention. As Chris described it, the school had wanted to tell parents and governors that he was a transsexual, believing that this would be more acceptable and cause less controversy than trying to explain that he was androgynous. Chris had similar experiences with the psychiatrists whose consent he required to get surgery. It was clear that it was much easier for Chris to represent himself as a textbook transsexual, a man trapped in a woman’s body, than it would be to convince psychiatrists that he was a person who identified as neither male nor female. His strategy was a success; Chris had a double mastectomy while I was in Manchester.

  • Phenomenologies and Physiologies of Transgender Identities

Ideas of the body are central both to the practice of transgendered people, and to the representations of their feelings and identities they make in narratives of the self. The ethnography of Manchester’s transgendered reveals three broad ways in which the body is conceived, perceived and acted upon. The first of these is apparent in transvestites’ and transsexuals’ phenomenological experiences of their bodies, in which a ‘self’ is perceived within the body, yet separate to it, and possibly opposed to body-appearance. For example, in Joe’s obituary there is a reference to his ‘dual-identity’. This idea of a personality or identity that is divided in two, with a male side and a female side, is common to many narratives of self-identified transvestites. The suggestion is that everyone has a female and male side to their personality; the ‘male side’ is the source of aggression and other stereotypically male behaviour; the ‘female side’ finds expression in wearing female clothes, and more gentle behaviours and actions. Dressing en femme is thus described as ‘getting in touch’, or ‘being in touch’ with one’s female side. ‘Mind’ and body-appearance are thus divided, while the acknowledged distinction between the sexes is not challenged, but rather relocated – embodied within the ‘self’. Maleness and femaleness are accepted and reified as categories, though their discrete associations with biological men and women are broken down.

In the narratives of those identifying as male-to-female transsexuals, the well-known image of being ‘a woman trapped in a man’s body’ was commonly used. Here ideas of gender identity as distinct from physical sex are adopted from medical and anthropological narratives, allowing the conception of the body as split and divided between the ‘real’ identity (the ‘true-self’ or ‘inner-self’) and the ‘wrong’ body-appearance. The transsexual subjectivity, as represented by this image, is thus a product of the embodiment, through self-reflection, of a discourse heavily based on medical, psy-science and anthropological narratives on the distinction of sex and gender.

Secondly, transgendered people conceive of aspects of the body and its adornments as mutable, and as subject to manipulation. Body modifications are indeed central to transgendered identities. For both transvestites and transsexuals, this would include, head-hair and body-hair, posture, figure and clothing, while transsexuals might use hormone treatment and GRS to attain a permanent change in physical appearance. Haraway, a philosopher of science, has argued that in contemporary identities there are ‘leaky distinctions’ and a permeability of boundaries between organisms and machines, and that ‘cyborg’ identities have developed in which the self is not divisible from technology (Haraway 1991, 152-3). Similarly, Hausman (1995) has argued, through a consideration of the literature about and by transsexuals, that transsexual subjectivity is defined by its demand for ‘sex-change’, and has therefore developed in alliance with the medical technologies that facilitate such physical alterations. While I accept the importance of technology and physical-change to transgendered subjectivities, I argue that rather than defining, this is a consequence of a subjectivity in which it is necessary to express the self by affecting a continuity between one’s ‘self’ and one’s body-appearance.

The third way in which transgendered people conceive of the body is as containing what I call a ‘gendered body-essence’. To elaborate: in Section 3, I demonstrated that members reflecting on childhood would frequently recognise behavioural characteristics that set them apart – signs of their transvestism or transsexualism though they did not recognise or understand at the time. I have already considered the impact of psy-science and folk/anthropological narratives on such interpretations, however the medical sciences were also ‘generous’ with their theories of the body and personality. Concord members frequently made references to their belief in the genetic or hormonal cause of transgender identities, which were frequently argued to be types of hermaphroditism. For instance, in Joe’s obituary (Section 3), ‘genetic continuity’ is posited as the explanation ‘for some wide gender-identity tradition’. Such appeals to genetic explanations of transgender identity suggest that these represent a part of the body that is considered immutable, as opposed to body appearance.

Weston contrasts the agency conveyed by the term ‘families we chose’, to the absence of agency in the term ‘biological’ or ‘blood families’ that comes from ‘the sense of blood as an immutable fact over which individuals exert little control’ (Weston 1991, 38). Whereas the gay people Weston writes about desired agency and choice, amongst Manchester’s transgendered population the idea of choice over identity is rejected. Instead their transgenderism is linked to ‘gendered body-essence’, which is held to be determining of gender-identity. The discrepancy in transgendered people between the self and physical appearance is generally argued to be a mistake; as Sally emotionally stated, ‘I just want to correct whatever went wrong with my body as soon as possible, so I can get on and try and live a normal life’. Rejection of the idea of choice over transgender identity, by ascribing it to gendered body essence, can again be seen as a reaction against assertions that GRS is a form of cosmetic surgery and unworthy of treatment, with the abuse of medical discourse adding legitimacy to their arguments.

An opposition is evident in the transgendered subjectivity between a ‘natural’, ‘legitimate’ and immutable self/body essence, and a flexible appearance that one may choose to change. Transgendered identities are produced through narratives that establish a link between a person’s self/body essence and their appearance, explained as the expression of an ontological gender identity. Different transgender identities are produced in this way by different classifications of the mutable and immutable parts of the body, and the different practices for the reconciliation of these opposed parts of the body.

The different conceptions and practices of the body, considered above, can be incorporated within a theory of transgendered subjectivity. While this subjectivity involves a feeling of an ‘essential gender identity’, such an ‘interiority’ can be considered as ‘a kind of infolding of exteriority’ (Rose 1996, 37). This approach negates the idea of an essential identity prior to the subjectification of the individual; the sense of self is treated as a construction of the same discourses that require and shape its expression. In this ethnography, I have considered the impact of psy-science, medical and anthropological discourses on both transgendered people’s feelings about their identity, and the way this identity is understood and explained in narrative. In doing so, I have argued that the ‘true-self’ felt to be expressed in a transgender identity, is itself formed in transgendered people’s life-history narratives, and that these narratives are formed within power relations. Transgendered people have thus been subjectified in their power relations with academics, medics, psychiatrists and others.

  • Conclusion – Bending or Defending?

The transgendered members of the Northern Concord demonstrate the complex nature of identities, as they are formed within discourses, and represented through their own, and others’ narratives. By focusing on gender and transgender identities, it appears that the ways in which the club members conceive of themselves and represent themselves are dialectical and influenced by medical and sociological/anthropological theories that distinguish gender identity from physical sex. The discourse reflects transgendered subjectivities of ‘transvestite’ and ‘transsexual’, and these identities seem partly to reproduce the discursive stereotypes of normal behaviour and identity through self-justifications and explanations that ‘regularise’ transgenderism. This also influences the way the identities are received and accepted both by the ‘self’ and others, and more practically on opportunities for medical treatment and physical ‘cure’.

However, these transgender identities, as represented by the club members, are partial and strategic. Aware of their position and the institutional and social opposition they may face, transgendered people are able to re-present themselves appropriately to achieve their desires, or to maintain their personal safety. Such practices are indicative of how club members were able to remain instrumental in their own lives, and how the importance of enfolded subjectivities to transgendered identities enables, requires and produces a degree of agency.

It is important for anthropologists to recognise how as theoreticians and fieldworkers they may have a significant impact on the people being considered. Anthropology has contributed to the production of discursive ‘truths’ which influence transgendered people’s self-conceptions and self-representations. The discipline holds a privileged position, with its academic status, and its corpus of ethnography that can be used to justify and dispute claims about what is ‘natural’ and ‘essential’ about sex and gender, and the relation of sex to gender. But the transgendered people I have considered are also capable of producing their own strategic and situational ‘truths’, in interaction with discourses, structures and institutions, which may subvert or reinforce the more dominant discourses, of which their identities are partly a product. It is necessary, therefore, to consider the practice of the transgendered as a strategic and pragmatic negotiation of ‘identity’, ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, rather than as behaviour consistent with the abstract theoretical constructions of either ‘gender bending’ or ‘gender defending’. For ultimately, the transgendered neither simply defend gender, nor bend it, but contend with it in practice and in representation.

  • Appendix 1: Medical Narratives on Transgenderism

In using the term medical narrative, I am referring to a particular narrative on gender and transgenderism that is dominant amongst those who are involved with the treatment or counselling, or research about those with concerns about their gender. It is found in many of the writings and practices of the medical fields of endocrinology and psychiatry, and related work of clinical psychologists.

There has, of course, been extensive writing on the issues surrounding transgenderism within these fields, and the contemporary distinctions between transsexual and transvestite are based on medical definitions, which are the product of historically developing ideas of gender within medicine. Hausman (1995) has written on the development of transsexual subjectivity defined by its demand for ‘sex change’ or GRS, and hence the required surgical technology, in the ‘official discourses’ of transsexualism’. Hausman’s review of the historical development of the treatment of intersexuals and transsexuals reveals three issues that are fundamental to the medical narrative on transgenderism, and my analysis of the ideas about sex and gender held by the transgendered people, with whom I spoke. The first two issues relate to the location of sex and gender in the person, while the third issue is the definition of transsexualism as an illness.

Within the history of medical attitudes Hausman provides, there appear to be two contradictory conceptions of sex and gender in the approach of medics to intersexuals and transsexuals. I argue that this contradiction is of significance in discourses on sex and gender, not only in the medical community, but amongst transgendered people and wider society. The first conception of sex and gender treats the two terms as largely synonymous; they are represented as diffuse, with effect on the entire body, the personality, and on the actions of that body. Though this conception of sex and gender long predates any biological conformation, it is this conformation from medicine and the medical sciences that is of particular interest here. The developments in endocrinology in the 1900s to 1930s represent an early example of this. While I shall consider endocrinology’s concern with disorders of the hormones later, at this point it is the ‘glandular thesis’ (Hausman, 1995; 24) itself that is of particular importance. Certain of the chemicals produced by the glands were identified as having ‘sexes’ (‘female’ and ‘male’ sex hormones) and these were identified as the basis of sex-differences. This simultaneously reduced sex-differences to chemicals perceived to be responsible, and established the means by which differences in the sexes were produced. As Hausman writes, ‘[e]ndocrinilogy was thus perceived as having established a chemical basis for sex differences in genitals, in secondary sex characteristics such as breasts and facial hair, as well as in behaviours. The ‘fact’ of chemical sex difference supported numerous cultural stereotypes about men and women…’ (Hausman, 1995; 38).

From the glandular thesis then a harmonious view of sex and gender is acquired. Male hormones produce men with male characteristics; to be otherwise is to be abnormal. Recent advances in medical science have shifted the emphasis from hormones to genetics and chromosomes. The ‘facts’ about sex now are that it is determined by the presence or lack of a ‘male’ Y-chromosome. The technology may have advanced, but the concept of gender remains: it is uniform, definite, and diffuse within the body spread by hormones, or present in the nucleus of every cell.

The contradiction becomes obvious though with intersexuals and the transgendered, especially those considered to be transsexuals. For instance, intersexuals may be phenotypic women, but be defined as genetically male by the presence of the Y-chromosome. Similarly those identifying and identified as transsexuals are argued to exhibit personalities considered to be typical of the opposite to the phenotypic sex of birth. This complicates the universal and diffuse understanding of sex that is represented by the idiom of hormones and genetics; distinctions have to be made between the ‘true’ sex (still the presence or lack of a Y-chromosome), the physical appearance, and, of central concern to the idea of transgenderism, the ‘gender’ of the personality.

Central to Hausman’s argument is the claim that the modern academic definitions of gender, representing the culturally prescribed personality and behavioural traits of men and women (or ‘third sexes’ – see Herdt, 1994), emerged from debates around the middle of this century on the correct treatment of intersexual patients. The particular issue was that patients, and/or their relatives, whose ‘true’ sex was determined to be other than that which they had been brought up as, were frequently reluctant to change their identity. The procedure was then to surgically modify the physical appearance to fit with the ‘gender’ of the patient, which was now distinct from the idea of ‘sex’. In particular it was the idea of ‘gender identity’ that was crucial here, as this was not simply a ‘role’ either in the lay sense of an act, or in the Parsonian sense with its structural functionalist implications. ‘Gender identity’ enters the discourse of this conception of gender as a fixed, yet reflexive, aspect of a person’s identity. According to Jan Wålinder, in 1964 Robert Stoller, a psychoanalyst at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was one of the pioneers of work on transsexuals, ‘formulated the concept of ‘core gender identity’ for the feeling of ‘I am male’ or ‘I am female’ as distinguished from ‘gender role’ for a masculine or feminine way of behaving’ (Wålinder, 1967; 4 cited in Hausman, 1995; 102).

This second and later conception of sex and gender introduces a crucial distinction between the two terms. It does not replace the earlier conception of a harmonious and complete sex/gender, but produces with it a discursive tension that I argue to be part of the transgendered identity. Though the second conception still maintains the reality of a ‘true’ identifiable sex, within its discourse the possibility arises of a medical recognition and a medical basis for inconsistencies between a person’s ‘sex’ and their ‘gender’. It is this recognition that provides transsexualism with medical legitimation and the opportunity for medical solution. In contrast, transvestism is considered to be a fetish, involving men who despite having a male ‘gender identity’ desire to wear women’s clothing. Transvestites are considered to range from desire to wear complete female attire, on a full-time basis, to those who are sexually aroused by wearing particular items of female clothing, most often underwear. The explanations for transvestism provided by psychiatrists tend to focus on childhood experiences, from which fetishes for female attire developed, but which occurred too late, or were not significant enough to lead to the formation of a ‘female gender identity’.

  • Appendix 2: Anthropological Narratives on Transgenderism

For my purposes anthropology is defined broadly; it includes conventional academic social anthropology, as well as more mythical and folk studies approaches. The emphasis is therefore upon the narrative received by transgendered people rather than the more sophisticated gender-theory of professional anthropologists. The two central issues in the anthropological narrative are a move from the idea of biologically determined sex, to a culturally determined gender – a move than reflects the similar move within the medical narrative – and secondly the ethnographic representation of transgenderism as a cross-cultural and trans-historical phenomenon. In many ways these two lines of argument are contradictory, and this is partly a consequence of my limited consideration of anthropological theory, but also partly a consequence of a contradiction in anthropological methodology: on the one hand to problematise categories, while on the other to reify them through cross-cultural comparison.

Anthropology’s critique of the notion that personality and temperament were dependent on biological sex began, most famously, with Margaret Mead’s study of the nurturing roles of parents in three tribes in New Guinea (1935). She argued against the idea of biologically determined sex-roles, which made women naturally better equipped to rear their offspring, and instead developed the theory that masculine and feminine characteristics are not based on fundamental sex differences but reflect cultural conditioning.

From Mead and the work of anthropologists who stressed cultural rather than socio-biological explanations for the differing behaviour of the sexes in different cultures and societies, a distinction developed in parallel with similar ideas in psychology and psychiatry. According to Moore (1999: 151) this distinction meant that by the 1970s it was orthodoxy within the social sciences that gender was a cultural elaboration of natural facts of biology, or sex. The terms sex and gender were therefore differentiated, and their connection accepted as one of gender arising out of sex, with an opposition established that presented gender as culture, and sex as nature. Though anthropological theories about gender have developed significantly since the 1970s, and these distinctions have been complicated, it is this relation between sex and gender that the culturalist narrative of gender evident in the narratives of the transgendered in Manchester. However, further theories of gender are used in my own analysis.

The second important aspect of the anthropological narrative on transgenderism is the historical and cross-cultural examples of the phenomenon that the discipline provides. Ethnographic examples of transsexualism and ‘third sexes’ predate the modern discipline of social anthropology. Colonialists and travellers attracted by exotica have reported examples of sex-changing and cross-dressing traditions, some of which have died out like the berdache of North America, while others such as the hijras of India continue in the present. More recently anthropologists have studied traditions of transgenderism in order to understand the social and historical construction of the ideas of gender they involve. These studies have provided further indication that sex classification was not only unable to fully account for the attributes of the genders as they are found in different societies, but that the dualistic categorisation into male and female is also a cultural construct, not a universal given.

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