When I started doing research on Thai gender clinics, I joined an email list for Asian transmen. I thought that maybe this would provide me with contacts of transpeople to meet with in Thailand. While this wasn’t the case, the list did give me some perspective on how many transmen have surgery in Thailand. Being on the list has also been an education in the vagaries of politics and daily life for many transmen in different urban centres around the Asia Pacific, especially in Singapore. For whatever reason, Singaporean transguys make up the majority of vocal list members.
A couple of months ago, someone on this list posted a link to a very large, ‘straight’ web forum in which a Singaporean FTM had come out, explaining about his life, being on hormones, surgery and so forth. The person who posted the link opined that this act of coming out was about attention-seeking, and that the poster was not a ‘real man’ at all, but maybe just transitioning for the attention. Some other people agreed. The discussion deepened when those against ‘public’ posts about FTMs pointed out that the costs of being found out are so high that they would prefer ordinary people to have no idea about the existence of transpeople at all.
A lot of the other FTM forums I read are based on the logic that public sharing of one’s experiences with others is a necessary and ‘natural’ part of transitioning. Not only that, it is framed as politically necessary. I can’t count the blogs and livejournals that exist to document individual transitioning processes; they are legion. Perhaps these journals and weblogs are not always written with a large audience in mind, but they share in the assumption that visibility = good: for the benefit of other transpeople, but also for the benefit of non-transfolk readers as well. The difference, I think, is that people in the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and Europe write most of the blogs and livejournals I’m thinking of. It’s impossible not to be struck by the disjuncture here: in one setting, talking publicly about one’s transition experiences is ‘normal’, and in another setting, it’s representative of something that almost invalidates an individual’s claim to be trans at all.
One could ask two questions here. Firstly, this is a pretty clear example of the logic of Euro-American identity politics failing. But we know all about that; it’s old news. The really important question is, what are the conditions of FTM everyday life in a place that make invisibility so paramount? What does visibility risk, what threats does it pose? And secondly, what are the political models that people are using, under such conditions? Is there something specific to a calculus of ‘face’ (I’m thinking of Fran Martin’s excellent work on masks/faciality here in Situating Sexualities) that makes visibility so much less important as a political move in the context of Chinese diaspora cultures in South-East Asia?
It’s very early days, but I want to try and write 3000 words for a workshop upcoming in June. I’m not even sure how to write about this particular problem, given that writing about it actually involves reproducing something about the email list, when it’s clear that some list members would prefer no-one non-trans even knew about the existence of the list. How does one write around invisibility, while protecting the desire to be invisible? At the moment, my strategy is to write to the list itself, and ask anyone interested to comment to me via email. We’ll see how that goes.