FSG: Faith, Sexuality and Gender

On the margins of orthodoxy

Transgenderism: Identity and Language 4 July 2011

Given my training in languages and literary-critical theory, I’m very conscious of the degree to which much of the discourse on gender issues revolves around defining the (politically, epistemologically) correct language to use about gender issues themselves. There is, for example, a big debate in, shall I call it, the ‘LBGTQI’ community about whether ‘transsexualism’ should be classed as a sub-category of the ‘transgender’ umbrella term.

I myself have had my own issues with the term ‘transgender’, as part of my long-running efforts to define myself in gender terms, which have seen various designations come in and out of favour. For the time being, I am using ‘androgynous’ rather than ‘transgender’; although I regard androgyny as being a sub-category of transgender. I have attempted to define what I mean by ‘androgynous’ / ‘androgyny’ / ‘androgyne’ in previous posts, so I won’t go over all that ground again. Suffice it to say that my own version of androgyny is psychological rather than being physical (i.e. having an outwardly gender-ambiguous appearance) or relating to my social gender role (i.e. acting in ways that cross the conventional social barriers between masculine and feminine).

But what does that mean? This is where I could go into a lengthy discourse trying to tie down the specifics of the way I identify as both male / masculine and female / feminine, or neither strictly male / masculine nor female / feminine. And that could all get very intricate, nuanced and self-absorbed. And that’s my point really: discourse that questions conventional gender dualities, particularly in a personal context, often becomes completely wrapped up in self-referential and jargonistic terminology, and nice distinctions, that can leave those of a more non-gender-questioning turn of mind completely floundering if not indifferent.

But that comes with the turf, so to speak. The reason why gender discourse can become so convoluted and terminologically fragmented is that it is trying to overcome the oppositional dualities that conventional language sets up: male vs. female, masculine vs. feminine, ‘cissexual’ vs. transsexual, etc. And we’re not talking here only about social or linguistic conventions that relate to the ‘content’ of language (i.e. what words ‘refer’ to) but about how language itself structures social-gender identity, or, conversely, how social gender is formed through a process of ‘linguistic identification’.

In the terms of Lacanian psychoanalysis, what I’m referring to is the process of identifying with / through the ‘Symbolic’, which essentially means language and other symbols / signifiers that have a conventional, ‘fixed’ social meaning. Language and the Symbolic order is inherently structured around binary oppositions: the presence or absence of the signified. E.g. ‘male’ is defined through a matching of the signifiers of the ‘male’ (i.e. ‘man’, ‘boy’, ‘he’, ‘male’ clothes) with their socially determined signified (an actually ‘male’ person or body), as opposed to a ‘non-match’ (a ‘female’ person). In other words, ‘male’ is the opposite of its opposite (‘female’), and so is defined in that opposition itself. Indeed, the opposition between ‘male’ and ‘female’ could be regarded as the primordial or archetypal binary that provides the template or foundation for all others. In this way, linguistic / conceptual binaries represent the means through which society both symbolises and structures itself, and inscribes biology (and biological behaviour) as meaning (i.e. as relationship). In particular, and primordially, this is what determines that ‘sex’ (and sex identity) is always already gender: pre-inscribed into the Symbolic as a function of being known and symbolised as anything at all, as opposed to being altogether beyond language, and therefore beyond knowing or telling.

Any discourse that questions such a fundamental, linguistically pre-structured opposition as that between male and female is automatically questioning the whole way language works: separating things into ‘logical’ opposites – one thing not (capable of) being its opposite. In this way, re-definitions of gender that seek to go beyond the conventional binaries end up having to define new Symbolic nodes: new signifiers that denote a convergence of concepts that are usually held to be mutually contradictory but which, by that token, are inevitably defined in relation to those binaries even if they posit their transgression. And so, for example, my concept of androgyny, which is: neither strictly both male / masculine and female / feminine, nor neither male / masculine nor female / feminine, and hence, though it is beyond the ‘sex’ binary of ‘male’ and ‘female’, and beyond the gender binary of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, nonetheless can define and articulate itself only in terms of those binaries even while acknowledging that they are inadequate to explaining what it is. The ultimate binary to which I am bound is that I can say what it is only by saying what it isn’t: neither the presence nor the absence of the conventional gender binary – or, in other words, the absence of either presence to or absence from conventional gender polarity.

The problem is how to inhabit that space of being ‘beyond’ or opposed to the conventional social signifiers, but to do so ‘socially’: i.e. how to symbolise and express one’s gender difference in a manner that does not differentiate oneself – separate oneself – from society and from relationship with others. In other words, how do I express my androgyny – which is, as I’ve said, very much ‘in the mind’ – authentically in terms that conventional society can understand, relate to and – hopefully – accept?

Well, that’s a question not only for another time and another post, but an existential question that only time and my life journey can (begin to) answer.


Bisexuality: The Desire Of the Other 27 March 2008

Of course, another reason why bisexuality makes people feel uncomfortable (following on from my previous blog entry) is that it calls into question their own sexual orientation – more than homosexuality presents a challenge to heterosexuals, and vice-versa. This is because it confronts people with the idea that sexuality does not consist of polar opposites but is more of a continuum, and moreover one which people can move along at different stages in their life, or from one relationship to the next. This means that their own straight or gay orientation might not be as stable or unambiguous as they would like to think.

The idea of a continuum of sexuality is not new. All the same, my experience has been that straight or gay people will often accept the idea in principle but then always feel the need to specify that they’ve never felt an attraction to anyone of the same or opposite sex respectively! I’m not sure I believe them, but then again, I would say that, wouldn’t I? It all depends what you mean by ‘attraction’, I suppose. Attraction can take place at many different levels, including those of consciousness and the unconscious. Equally, while not all attraction is sexual – in the sense of seeking some form of physical sexual release – it always involves some element of desire.

The disconnect between desire and the physical sexual urge or need (bound up with reproduction) has been well explored by psychoanalysts of the school of Lacan and critical theorists of various hues. And this disconnect can involve a separation and re-combination of the psychological and physical ‘objects’ of desire. For example, a man such as myself can be attracted to other men who combine psychological (personality) and even physical characteristics that I think of as feminine with physical features that I recognise ‘objectively’ as male and masculine. You could call this homosexual desire; but you could also say that the desire as such – the psychological component, at least – is dependent on the object being ‘like a woman’, and that therefore it is also heterosexual. And if homosexuality can be (a little) heterosexual, cannot apparently ordinary heterosexuality not also have a tinge of homosexuality about it? For instance, the need that some men have for women to be exaggeratedly, indeed artificially, feminine (concealing, perhaps, a hidden dread or excitement at the idea that women may be more like men than heterosexual convention accepts)? Or the definite attraction of some men for women with pronounced ‘masculine’ traits of character or physique?

Other-sex and same-sex attraction possibly always expresses the paradox that the other is fantasised as the embodiment of ‘my other’: the other part of myself that is beyond my conscious self-image as a man or woman, as gay or straight – my other half; the one I desire because I do not yet fully possess him or her. Do we perhaps always in this way love in the other an Other self?

We never recapture this unity of the self and the other in this life; our desire is never satisfied; attraction can always surprise us and draw us out. But in Christ I know an Other who both knows me, loves me and is me more deeply, fully and truly than I know and love and am myself. And in him, my desire finds its end.

(Originally posted on http://btcp.wordpress.com on 18 July 2007.)