Back in full-blown thesis mode. In an effort at treating this blog like the laboratory it was once intended as, I’m going to explore some ideas here. Feedback and questions are welcome, as always.
At the meeting to confirm my candidature a year ago, one of my supervisors suggested I dig deeper into historiography in answering the question of how (I think) discourses of travel are central to the emergence of practices of transsexuality. At that stage — at the initial stage of rejecting transhistorical narratives that place transsexuals in every era and locale — it seemed fairly obvious that transsexuality was a specifically ‘modern’ thing. The particular technologies that enabled hormonal and surgical transition were only just developing in the early 20th century; they didn’t become legitimate medical practices until the 1960’s. And it was only at the beginning of the 1920’s that European sexologists split off same-sex object choice from cross-gender identification, arguing that just as there could be homosexuals who did not present as inverts, there could also be ‘transvestic’ persons who were not to be categorised in the same class as homosexuals. Hirschfeld locates what he refers to once as Transsexualismus on a continuum with homosexuality, but argues it’s a fundamentally different order of identification/desire to homosexuality. This is part of what enables ‘transsexuality’ to emerge as its own sexological category, with its own set of diagnostic procedures and (at that time, extremely speculative) treatments.
At least, that’s the standard explanation. But I’ve been reading my Chakrabarty, and I want to argue against a narrative that locates the causality of that emergence in scientific, medical and sexological development. Ie, I’m trying to reject historicism. This could be considered an odd move when there isn’t even really a trans history movement (let alone discipline) in which historicism is hegemonic. But almost all the narratives framing transsexual history perform that historicism in some variation — even Susan Stryker, who argues that ‘the transsexual’ is a sign of postmodernity: the ultimate performance of self-construction. (Which, as Felski argues, performs its own progress narrative.) On the other hand, Joanne Meyerowitz performs a kind of historicism from below, focusing on mass media and the enormous number of people who wrote to advice columnists and sexology magazines requesting information about how to change one’s sex because they’d heard of Lili Elbe or someone similar. Both readings — in fact, almost all historical accounts of the emergence of transsexuality — rely on readings of Christine Jorgenson, the New Yorker who went to Copenhagen for a sex change and reinvented herself as a public figure on her return in 1953. Stryker claims Jorgeonson as the ultimate postergirl of postmodernity. Meyerowitz, more carefully, argues that part of Jorgenson’s appeal was how her story resonated with the post-war American dream of liberal individualism: a tale of “individual striving, success and upward mobility.” Plus, of course, better living through science.
It’s that resonation with a dream of upward mobility, success and individual self-transformation that I think is quite central to understanding the prehistory of transsexuality. In Meyerowitz’s reading, it’s Jorgenson whose story folds together the American Dream ideology with discourses about the new potentiality to transition gender. It’s a localised historical moment — individualised, even. But it seems to me that the emergence of transsexuality itself as an identity is also localised, specific to the United States, and reliant on discourses of potentiality, self-transformation, upward mobility and striving for success.
Chakrabarty argues that the chronological signification of ‘modernity’ performs a spatial separation between Europe, where modernity (and democracy, and development) happened first, and other locations which were told they were not ready to be modern. The very meaning of modernity relies on spaces outside it, that are not yet modern. Thus it performs a historicism: there’s a progress narrative attached to any thinking of modernity, even concepts of uneven development. If transsexuality performs a similar kind of historicism, it seems to me that the progress narrative is doubled internally and externally. On one hand, transsexuality as a narrative promises individual ‘progress’, movement, riffing on the potential for an individual to consume ’self-transformation’ as a commodity in late capitalism. On the other hand, transsexuality is presented as the logical step forward from the ‘passing’ stories of the 18th and 19th centuries. Doubtless, more people are taking advantage of surgical technologies to live in different genders now than they were even 50 years ago. But the progress narrative depends on the stability of a binary gendered world: the most dominant markers of trans success were, and still are, ‘perfect’ passing, successful performance of traditional gender cues.
Next time: What does this have to do with travel?