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.