Celebrating, Deconstructing, Historicizing and Theorizing Transgenderism and the Transgendered

by Eleanor M. Miller

Bonnie Bullough, Vern L. Bullough and James Elias, eds., GENDER BLENDING. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1997. 504p. $34.95, ISBN 1-57392-124-6.

Leslie Feinberg, TRANSGENDER WARRIORS: MAKING HISTORY FROM JOAN OF ARC TO RUPAUL. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996. 193p. bibl. photogs. index. $27.50, ISBN 0-8070-7940-5.(1)

Marianne van den Wijngaard, REINVENTING THE SEXES: THE BIOMEDICAL CONSTRUCTION OF FEMININITY AND MASCULINITY. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. 161p. index. $29.95, ISBN 0-253-33250-8; pap., $12.95, ISBN 0-253-21087-9.

The three books reviewed here are a provocative gloss on the state of transgender theory and politics at this point in history. They demonstrate that although feminist and non-feminist scholars in the humanities and social and biological sciences have studied and theorized transgenderism to further their own personal and disciplinary goals, the time for transgender to receive attention simply because transgendered people need and deserve it is long overdue. This is not to say that transgenderism in all its complexity isn't a sort of intellectual treasure trove for scientists and queer and feminist theorists alike, nor is it to deny that feminists, transgenderists and gays, lesbians, and bisexuals don't share many political goals and aren't, in fact, often one and the same people, but to acknowledge that the history of the academic study of transgenderism is so undeniably the history of appropriation, distortion, and silencing.

The most important book of the three politically and the one that makes this point most forcefully, in my opinion, is Leslie Feinberg's Transgender Warriors. Anyone who has read Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues is aware that s/he is someone who knows the art of reader seduction.(2) The narrative form s/he uses to structure Transgender Warriors is central to the book's allure. Feinberg uses her/his own search for a meaningful way to live her/his life as a Jewish, working-class, transgendered lesbian as the backdrop for what is a celebratory history of the transgendered.

It was at an exhibit of clay figures at the Museum of the American Indian in New York City that Feinberg found her/his first clue that transgendered people had not always been hated. The discovery of the "Two-Spirited" (what European colonizers derogatorily labeled "berdache") led her/him to seek other evidence of this sort and to try to piece together an historical account of the origin of the hatred that transgendered people seemed to have come so universally to experience, and their resistance to it. Beginning with prehistory, Feinberg presents all the historical evidence s/he could unearth on transgenderism, its social meaning and status. The evidence, including some never-before-published photographs and illustrations, is fascinating. Feinberg argues from this evidence, taken in its totality, that the appearance of rigidly enforced sex/gender boundaries emerges "at the intersection of the overthrow of mother-right and the rise of patriarchal class-divided societies" (p.52).

The interpretation of the evidence is where this work falls short as a piece of scholarship. Feinberg tends to read historical descriptions of transgenderism and its social status through the lens of a contemporary transgender activist. Thus, she often ignores the historically specific social meanings that transgendered people and the societies they were part of might have attributed to their appearance, feelings, and behavior. Moreover, Feinberg's use of doctrinaire Marxism as an explanatory frame is simplistic and unconvincing, if suggestive.

Despite these problems - and they are serious ones - I found this book impossible to put down. I was profoundly moved by the thoughtfulness, care, and ultimate humanity of Feinberg herself/himself as s/he explores her/his own history, the historical and contemporary situations of specific transgendered people, and political strategies and lines of argument that the transgendered and those who support them might employ to further their cause. Most importantly, the book suggests that a crosscultural rereading of the historical meaning of transgenderism is a massive and valuable project yet to be undertaken.

Marianne van den Wijngaard's account of how the study of transgendered people has been used by biomedical science to construct femininity and masculinity and vice versa puts the historical shortcomings of Feinberg's work in perspective. For if van den Wijngaard's interpretation of behavioral neuroendocrinology's role in creating and sustaining gender dimorphism is correct, the objectivity of what passed for science in this case is quite suspect. At least Feinberg makes no attempt to present herself/himself as anything but partisan. S/he states explicitly: " . . . this book is not aimed at defining but at defending the diverse [transgender] communities that are coalescing" (p.ix).

The argument van den Wijngaard develops in Reinventing the Sexes: The Biomedical Construction of Femininity and Masculinity is a complicated and technically sophisticated one and transgenderism per se is not at its heart. The most important piece of technical information needed to understand her story has to do with "the organization theory" postulated in 1959 by Phoenix et al.(3) It is based on the assumption that "the sexual organs bathe an embryo with hormones in the womb, resulting in the birth of an individual with a male or a female brain" (p.4). One reason the theory was scientifically appealing was because it brought together the ideas of two different fields, psychology and embryology. It was important for the direction of future research because it legitimated study of the permanent effects of hormones on early brain development as expressed in a variety of behaviors, especially sexual behavior. By observing gender- specific behavior, scientists could now "legitimately" assume they were measuring brain differentiation by gender.

In 1955, before the introduction of the organization theory, John Money and his colleagues, who studied what was then referred to as "intersexes," viewed masculinity and femininity in behavior as the result of socialization. By 1972 the influential Money and his colleague Ehrhardt had modified their position. Based on their study of prenatal hormones' effects on the behavioral development of pseudohermaphrodites, they now argued that male or female behavior resulted at least partly from the presence of androgens that "masculinized" the brain prenatally, or their absence, which resulted in an undifferentiated or female brain.

The introduction of the organization theory, van den Wijngaard argues, was followed by three historical periods during which it underwent interesting revisions. As she analyzes and interprets scientific discovery during these periods, the questions this neuroendocrinologist asks are: "How did scientists and physicians construct dualistic images of femininity and masculinity by producing knowledge based on the organization theory? How did feminism help stabilize or change these images?" (p.20).

Van den Wijngaard concludes that sometimes because of researchers' desire to maintain their status within a specialty, sometimes because of the dominance of males in laboratory sciences - even, ironically, when women became integrated into the research enterprise and began to question both theory and method, and, most surprisingly, even when confronted with disconfirming evidence - biomedical science created, discovered, and rediscovered gender dimorphism. The explanatory paradigm represented by the organization theory, in other words, interfaced so nicely with taken-for-granted "knowledge" about sex differences and gender dominance that had little or no grounding in science, that all the safeguards supposedly making science an objective seeking-after-the-truth were obviated. The peculiar sexist politics of scientific discovery that made this possible is the major concern of this important book.

A subtheme, however, is the medical community's effort to "cure" homosexuals via a biomedical model that associated homosexuality with the absence of masculinity and thus threw homosexuals into the default category of femininity. Homosexuality and transgenderism could now be understood as the result of a prenatal hormonal abnormality. What had been socially deviant was now medically pathologized. This in itself was not new. The supposed origin of the pathology, however, was now such that it led directly to research into neuroendocrinological interventions as potential preventatives and cures.

In van den Wijngaard's chapter on the effect of this research on the treatment of pseudohermaphrodites, she argues that although biomedical researchers often presented their findings with many qualifications, and even Money and Ehrhardt developed a more balanced position regarding the effects of hormones on brain differentiation in their work after 1972, physicians ignored the subtleties of these research findings and adopted images of femininity and masculinity at odds with the ideas generated by biomedical researchers at that time. Clinicians publishing in the 1970s and 1980s seem consistently to cite Money's and Ehrhardt's simplistic earlier work, ignoring later complicating findings. Van den Wijngaard finds the medical community's apparent belief in the parallel and linked effects of androgens on the development of sexual organs, sexual identity, and sex-specific social roles remarkable given the complexity of research findings in this regard (p.93). In addition, medical practitioners emphasized the importance of sexuality in men and reproductivity in women as primary considerations in determining courses of treatment. In short, the treatment of pseudohermaphrodism also revalidates traditional images of 'real' men and women.

Van den Wijngaard concludes by questioning whether preserving a particular cultural understanding that makes life impossible for anyone not clearly belonging to one sex or another justifies subjecting such people to the danger and pain of multiple surgeries and risk of loss of sexual pleasure. She says: "It would be an immense step forward in science and medical practice if we could become aware of . . . our dualistic images of sex, sexuality, and gender . . . [and] accept human diversity as it always exists. I hope to live to see multiplicity of gender cherished at the intersection of biological sex, class, and race" (pp.95-96).

This is a dream van den Wijngaard and Feinberg share. Feinberg explicitly advocates support for those seeking surgery to make their bodies conform with their felt sexual identities and this position is implicit in van den Wijngaard's book. Both recommend counseling for the parents of intersexed babies to counter the massive impact of both our culture's and the medical establishment's dualistic thinking.

The self-consciousness of both these authors on the particularly salient and fraught issue of "sexual reassignment surgery" (even the term reinscribes gender dimorphism) is what is lacking in Gender Blending. This work, edited by the late Bonnie Bullough, Vern L. Bullough, and James Elias, is a selection of the papers from a Congress of Cross-Dressing, Sex and Gender organized by the Center for Sex Research at California State University, Northridge. The conference sought to bring together various organizations serving the trangender community and "those living the transgender life" with researchers and therapists (p.13). Criticizing this work for its lack of political self-consciousness would probably be met with incredulity by its editors, each with impeccable credentials as sex researchers. The Introduction, for example, describes Marjorie Garber's work in the humanities that challenges bipolar notions of male and female, seeing transgenderism not only as disruptive of male/female dualism, but also of those very categories.(4) The lead article is by sociologist Anne Bolin, well-known for her ethnographic studies of identity among transgendered people, her assumption that gender is socially constructed, and her belief that the "transgenderist harbors great potential to deactivate gender or to create in the future the possibility of 'supernumer- ary' genders as social categories no longer based on biology" (p.31).(5)

Nevertheless the book is heavily influenced by the traditional dualistic assumptions of the biomedical model. The brief history of the concepts of cross-dressing and cross-gender behavior that launches the Introduction begins tellingly with the first description of these phenomena in the medical literature. An article by Dr. Stanley Biber, "Current State of Transexual Surgery: A Brief Overview," is filled with statements reinforcing the notion of "natural" gender dimorphism. For example, he says: "In our techniques, we not only form a vagina in a normal female position, but also construct a urethral orifice in the natural female position so that our patient can pass urine directly downward into the bowl while sitting on a toilet like a normal female, instead of over the top of the bowl as a male does" (p.375). Finally, no note is made of the fact that Bolin's piece, rooted in social constructionism, exists cheek by jowl with one attempting to uncover the "Culturally Universal Aspects of Male Homosexual Transvestites and Transexuals." At best this characteristic of the collection makes it less powerful and less rich theoretically than one might wish. At worst it renders it undeniably regressive. Having said this, it is only fair to stress that this book is an incredible resource for those seeking to understand the desire of transgendered people for sexual reassignment surgery, offer them compassionate support during all phases of reassignment, and help them deal with attendant legal, financial, moral, religious, and psychological issues. The problem is the assumptions about transgenderism that emerge from the biomedical model implicit in this book. This model invariably pathologizes and seeks to cure or offer palliative care, and when coupled with the clinical requirement that different varieties of transgenderism be specified so as to be linked to "appropriate" care plans and standards of care, undermines the very gender-bending potential of transgenderism that the editors purportedly seek to advance. The effort to categorize creates new gender boundaries that, not surprisingly, are primarily reflective of traditional (and unexamined) gender dualities.

What none of these books confronts head-on is the clear tension between respecting the choices of transgendered people to do what they wish with their own bodies - especially in light of the pain they experience in a society that recognizes only two genders and assumes a correspondence between one's sexual organs, one's sexuality, one's sexual identity, and one's sex-specific social behaviors and appearance - and fighting against rigid gender distinctions of all sorts so as to promote the type of stance toward gender diversity van den Wijngaard wishes for. It's clear that at least at this time in history, doing the former undercuts one's efforts to do the latter. Moreover, the fact that the background assumptions of both biomedical science and clinical practice are deeply and traditionally dualistic, and that these institutions have a profound effect on the social construction of gender at the same time that their practitioners hold the keys to the door to sexual reassignment surgery, does not bode well for a resolution.

Finally, although Feinberg would promote an umbrella movement in support of the civil rights of the transgendered, such a movement may confront the same problems that have plagued the women's movement. One can refuse to define the transgendered in order to promote community and social action; however, can one at the same time attend to the various needs peculiar to the diverse subgroups that comprise that community? Gender Blending, for example, contains a feisty comment by Virginia Prince, whom Feinberg describes as "the founding mother of the contemporary U.S. cross-dressing community" (p.49). She is also the person who coined the word "transgenderist." With regard to sexual reassignment surgery, she quips: "We ain't broke so stop trying to fix us" (p.476). The editors' remarks introducing the Prince comment are patronizing. In a sense, they must be because she is a person of some status within the transgender community whose remarks challenge the whole premise of the biomedical approach to transgenderism. The editors say: "Virginia has always been opinionated, and one of her major efforts has been to try to achieve a precision of language in relation to what individuals in the gendered community call themselves" (p.468). It is clear to this reader that the import of Prince's statement goes far beyond a concern for language. The irony is that Feinberg's political strategy, particularly that part that supports sexual reassignment surgery would, of necessity, also discount Virginia Prince's protest. And there's the rub.


1 My use of pronouns in referring to Leslie Feinberg in the review that follows is awkward. In Transgender Warriors, Feinberg says: "Where I come from, being 'politically correct' means using language that respects other peoples' oppressions and wounds" (p.ix). Awkward or not, that is my motivation here.

2 Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues (Ithaca: Firebrand Books, 1993).

3 Charles H. Phoenix, Roger W. Goy, Arnold A. Gerald, and William C. Young, "Organization Action of Testosterone Propionate on the Tissues Mediating Mating Behaviors in the Female Guinea Pig," Endocrinology, 65 (1959): 369-82.

4 Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 1992).

5 Anne Bolin, In Search of Eve: Transsexual Rites of Passage (South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey, 1988).

[Eleanor M. Miller is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee whose current work is on Azoran immigrants to Lowell, Massachusetts, her birthplace. She is the author of Street Woman (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986), which has recently been translated and published in Japan, coeditor of The Worth of Women's Work (Albany: SUNY Press, 1988), and former president of Sociologists for Women in Society.]

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Updated April 29, 1998