Sunday, December 26, 2010

Gender Rebel - Three Women Who Feel Male as a Core Gender Identity

I'm currently in the planning process for a research project into FTM transsexuals - people who feel like, live like, and or choose to become men. For some it's being gender queer, for some it's passing as male (binding breasts, dressing like a man), but for others it entails creating the physicality to match their gender identity (top surgery, testosterone therapy, and even, for a smaller percentage, bottom surgery).

My research questions revolve around the way FTM men (there are many other phrases and terms they use to describe themselves) construct their "enactment" of masculinity. Who and what shapes that ideal, and how conscious are they in this process of construction?

So I have been doing some reading - lots of reading. FTM men are much less talked about and written about than MTF women (biological men who identify as females). But there is some, and more is being produced - many of the best sources (aside from a few good books) have been PhD theses written in the last two years.

On Netflix, I found a 45 minute show called Gender Rebel, a show from the Logo TV network that looks at the lives of three young people (biologically female) who identify as masculine as their core gender identity. You can watch the show online for free. Here are the self-identified gender queers they look at in this show:

Twenty-two-year-old self-described "Gender Rebel" Jill grew up in New Jersey and moved to Tampa for college. For as long as she can remember, Jill and her mom have disagreed as to how Jill should dress. Jill recalls that she always wanted to buy boy's clothes, even when she was 7, but her mom...
read more

Lauren grew up in Howard Beach, a predominantly Italian-American "old-school" community where gender roles were always clearly defined. In fact, Lauren herself bought into those roles, brushing her long hair, growing her nails long -- she did everything she could to fit into her...
read more

Since a very early age, 25-year-old Kim has been uncomfortable with her breasts -- in fact, when she was six, she told her sister that she wanted to become a bodybuilder so she wouldn't have any! With the support of her girlfriend, Michelle, Kim has decided to have her breasts...
read more

Here is the summary of the show:

This original documentary explores the shattering of the confines of traditional gender identities by individuals who define themselves not as male or female, but something that incorporates both. Jill, who comfortably identifies as gender-queer, faces the challenge of coming out to family. Kim wants to undergo top surgery but must also address the effect the surgery will have on her relationship with her girlfriend Michelle. Lauren encounters confrontations from the gay community in Lauren's conservative home town regarding Lauren's gender-fluid identity and must decide whether to stay or move to another city. Part of Logo's Real Momentum documentary series.
I know there are people who are fascinated with transgender experience as some kind of "freak show" or something - daytime talk show material, but certainly not something worthy of serious consideration or academic study.

I disagree. Transgender experience in all its forms (I am looking specifically at transsexual experience, which is only small segment of the transgender or gender queer community) is a serious and important challenge to the notion of a gender binary: male or female.

Some trans men simply want to "pass," be seen as male; some inhabit an in-between place, neither entirely male or female; some live in the "butch" lesbian role; and there are many other variations, some having to do with gender, some having to do with sexuality, and some having to do with opposition to accepted norms.

In Self Made Men: Identity, embodiment, and recognition among transsexual men by Henry Rubin (2003), he did in-depth interviews with 22 men to understand their experience of embodiment as trans men. After talking about their employment and social class, and their religious background, he reveals their gender experience:
Thirteen men describe lesbian careers which preceded their FTM identification. Seven men say they never identified as a lesbian. Of those who had lesbian careers, six men claim that they are sexually attracted to women. They categorize themselves as heterosexual men or as queer-identified heterosexual men. Four of these ex-lesbians also switched their object choice over the course of transition and now identify as gay men. One now identifies as bisexual. A twelfth man who prefers women would not discount the possibility of having gay sex with another FTM. Finally, one man abstains from sex for the most part, though he thinks of himself as heterosexually oriented. Of the seven who do not have a lesbian career, two are homosexual (male sexual object choice) and three are heterosexual (female sexual object choice). Two are bisexual. One of the heterosexual men switched his object choice over the course of transition, from male partners before transition to female partners after transition. (page 7)
This is a pretty accurate snapshot from what I have read so far as to how diverse the FTM community is - and I would assume the same is true of MTF women as well.

In The Transgender Phenomenon, written by Richard Ekins and Dave King (2006), they recount that in the period around 1979 and 1981, when Anne Bolin was doing her first research, there were only "three major categories available for transgendered people to identify with: (1) those of the transsexual; (2) the heterosexual transvestite; or (3) the homosexual drag queen" (p. 10). That is certainly no longer the case.

Feminism and gay studies have revolutionized our understanding of gender issues - and certainly, this work has laid the foundations for the development of men's studies and masculinity studies (but not the new field of "male studies," because they adhere to an essentialist biological conception of gender). In generating new fields of study, they have also generated new (and often confusing, for those not initiated) terminology.

Rubin breaks down some of the terminology he uses in Self Made Men (I'm breaking this down into segments, but the words are his):
  • "Gender" refers to socially mediated expectations about an individual's role. Society divides these roles into two inflexible categories: man and woman. This strict social division is usually grounded in naturalistic assumptions that women are anatomically female and men are anatomically male.
  • "Sex" refers to an interlocking set of social expectations that bodies are divided and regulated into two discrete categories, male and female, which are hegemonically defined by the presence or absence of a penis and by secondary sex characteristics.
  • The terms "female" and "male" always describe sexed bodies.
  • The term "female-bodied" suggests that not all those with female bodies are women. Female-to-male transsexuals begin as female-bodied, though they are not women.
  • The terms "woman" and "man" refer to gender roles and identities.
  • The term "female-to-male transsexual" refers to an individual who is in transition or who has made the transition from one sexed body to another.
  • "Transgender" is an innovative concept that many transsexuals, transvestites, cross-dressers, passing women, butch lesbians, and nellie gay men (feminine or effeminate male homosexuals)are claiming as their own.
  • The term "transsexual man" is commonly misunderstood; it refers to a female-to-male transsexual who is living as a man. Transsexual men are often contrasted with "genetic men."
  • In contrast to sex, the term "sexuality" refers to sexual desire. Social categories of sexuality are most often delineated according to sexual object-choice.'
  • The category of "intersexuality" has a complex history; this history sometimes overlaps with the history of transsexuals. "Intersexual" refers to a body that is ambivalently sexed. Physicians have created several typologies of intersexuality, each with their own diagnostic criteria and their own treatments. (p. 19-20)
Just to make things confusing, the medical fields use very different (in fact, opposite) terms than are used within the transgender community:
In medical terminology, a "female transsexual" is an FTM and a "male transsexual" is an MTF. (p. 20)
* * * * *

This is some of the background that I am looking at in developing my research proposal. I'll post more on this as I get more clear on the project.

If you know - or are yourself FTM - any FTM men who have had top surgery and have been on T therapy for a while (and preferably have also had an hysterectomy), please send this to them - and you/they can contact me at billharryman (at) gmail (dot) com.

I apologize for the limited definition offered in that request - I have been informed that it is trans phobic - however, I simply need a set of criteria to focus the sample. If there are better criteria, please let me know. Even if you do not want to participate, but are willing to speak with me by email, please drop me a note.


Anonymous said...

Let's see, you could start by not calling us "women." The policing of who counts as transsexual and who doesn't - "any FTM men who have had top surgery and have been on T therapy for a while (and preferably have also had an hysterectomy)" - is frankly off-putting and borderline transphobic. Why are you only interested in those men who have had surgery? Because they're the "real men"? I would recommend that you think some more about why you want to study people who have already been so often objectified and misrepresented by cis folks, spoken about and for, while our own voices are ignored.

william harryman said...


Thank you for leaving your thoughts.

I apologize for any insensitivity perceived in this post - it is certainly not my intention to speak for you nor to define who you are.

I was advised to limit my sample in the way described simply as one possible definition of a "trans man." I am aware that this definition leaves out many trans men who have opted not to have surgery nor to have T therapy (I know the health risks of doing both are high).

I referred to the people in the video as "women" in part because the producers of the video did so - apologies for offending.

My goal is this: Tucson is a place where many trans people come for surgeries - and the therapeutic community here is largely ignorant in this realm. I want to personally understand more about who trans people are - and to also help increase awareness in other therapists.

I appreciate your comments - if you would be willing to help educate me further, PLEASE email me at billharryman (at) gmail (dot) com

I would certainly appreciate your guidance.