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Transgender Politics

An overview of research findings

Surya Monro

University of Brighton

 
GENDYS JOURNAL

Issue 12
November 2000

Surya Monro
is the author of
Gender Politics:
Citizenship, Activism, and Diversity

Published by Pluto Press Ltd

 
I began PhD research in the area of transgender politics in 1996. I was interested in the theoretical issues but became increasingly concerned with the way that transgender people are often discriminated against and shut out of mainstream society. The research findings concern the transgender movement and citizenship rights, the social exclusion of transgender people, transphobia, and transgender and theory (including postmodernism, feminisms and queer theory). Here I will only report on findings about the transgender movement.

The research aimed to inform both the practice of transgender politics and gender theory.

It was done via a mixture of my taking part in events, interviewing transgender people (approximately 25 in-depth interviews plus informal conversations with around 70 people), email discussions and a 1 day forum. It attempted to be participative (that is to involve transgender people) as much as possible, but this proved difficult given the guidelines about completing a PhD on my own.

Transgender Studies has developed a great deal since I began this research, with many interesting contributions being made by transgender people. (Bornstein 1998, Prosser 1998, More and Whittle 1999, Stryker 1996, Wilchins 1997 etc) It is important for me to place this research in the context of this, and to point out that it is merely a contribution to ongoing discussions, rather than any attempt at a final say. Also, I have developed ideas based on the research which do not reflect the views of all of the people who took part. This is a summary; I include peoples' interview material and expand more fully on the differences between peoples' ideas in the thesis, but at the end of the day the synthesis of ideas is mine. It is impossible to fully represent the transgender communities in a project of this size and a larger project would be useful.

Diversity

There is, needless to say, a great deal of diversity within the group currently termed 'transgender'. There is also diversity concerning how people define transgender, what people see as transgender politics, whether people are actively involved in activism or not, whether people think there is a movement or not, and ideas about what the aims of that movement should be and which strategies to use to achieve these aims. Overall, there seems to be some agreement that there has been a shift from the early self-help oriented groups towards emphasis on challenging the social exclusion and oppression of transgender people, and also in some circles celebrating transgender as part of the queer spectrum. There is broad agreement about the values underlying the movement, which include acceptance of diversity, equality and the right to self-determination.There are also strong alliances with other social groups, particularly the lesbian, gay and bisexual communities but also sympathetic heterosexual non-transgender people and others.

There is wide variation among transgender people concerning political aims. These include the full provision of parenthood, employment, and marriage rights, and a general shift towards depathologising transgender whilst supporting the need for appropriate healthcare where necessary. If the rights of everyone are to be supported very substantial reform is necessary. This is because third and multiple sex people, intersexuals and androgynes are currently unable to exist within society, as there is no legislative or bureaucratic support for them. Establishment of 'other than male and female' sex and gender categories is fiercely resisted by both mainstream society and most transgender people. It is a difficult thing to suggest because of the amount of social change which it would mean, which is hard to comprehend and even harder to fight for, when even relatively minor reforms concerning transsexual inclusion are so difficult to gain. In addition, there seems to be an issue about it possibly making it harder for transsexuals to fit into society as their assigned sex, but not much evidence for this actually being a problem.

Strategies for creating social change

People described a wide range of strategies for challenging the social exclusion of transgender people. These include:

  • simply being transgender
  • lobbying
  • challenging legislation
  • art, writing, research and education engagement with the media
  • direct action, for example at Pride marches
  • meeting people, discussing things, networking, mutual support

Challenges for the movement

There seems to be some tension in the communities around who is defined as transgender, whether people have had surgery or not, being 'out' as transgender, whether third, other or non-gendered identities are valid (as mentioned above), and whether political strategies should challenge the mainstream or work with it. The reasons for tensions include the extent of social exclusion that transgender people face, which makes it very difficult and in some cases impossible to be 'out' and to find the resources to campaign for equal rights. In addition, because transgender people go through difficult identity changes, they sometimes appear to find people who are different threatening, which may lead to tensions within the community.

Overall, it seems that the inclusion of all transgender people within the movement is currently taking place and that people are increasingly valuing diversity. Many people involved in politics work with the mainstream (the government, the NHS and so on), but others are more interested in challenging social inequality via opposition or living in alternative ways. Findings suggest that both strategies are important, and that many people use both at different times.
 

  1. Bornstein, K. (1998) My Gender Workbook New York: Routledge.
  2. More, K & Whittle, S, eds. (1999)Reclaiming Genders: Transsexual Grammars at the Fin de Siecle. London: Cassell.
  3. Nataf, Z. (1996) Lesbians Talk Transgender. London: Scarlett Press.
  4. Prosser, J. (1998) Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality. USA: Columbia University Press.
  5. Stryker, S. (1996) Christine Jorgensen's Atom Bomb: Transsexuality, Technology and Postmodern Embodiment Excerpt from the working draft of Trans: Changing sex and other ecstatic passages into postmodernity, forthcoming.
  6. Wilchins, R. A. (1997) Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender. Ithaca, New York: Firebrand Books.
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