Feeling Like A ________

Date:         Sun, 11 May 1997 08:16:57 -0400
Reply-To:     Queer Studies List <QSTUDY-L@LISTSERV.ACSU.BUFFALO.EDU>
Sender:       Queer Studies List <QSTUDY-L@LISTSERV.ACSU.BUFFALO.EDU>
From:         Callan Williams <TheCallan@AOL.COM>
Subject:      Feeling Like A ________

What do testicles feel like from inside your body?  Is your sensation of your having a penis the same as for the male you are in bed with?  Can you describe how you make masculine choices, or feminine ones for that matter?

It's easy to examine someone's anatomy in an objective way.  In fact, the best time to do it is when they are dead and you can take it apart to examine without moral objections.

It's not so easy to examine someone's thoughts, feelings and spirit.  In fact, we only know two ways -- we can either have them use shared symbols to describe them, with all the limits of those symbols, or we can examine their choices and try to infer something from them.  In either case, the bias of the observer is key.

And when we examine those thoughts, feelings and spirit, how do we know if we are examining something that is rooted in biology or in society?  How do we know if it is nature or nurture?

When the question comes up "How can you feel like a woman with a male body?"  the first question is "What is feeling like a woman?"  Is it simply the shared experience of having functioning female reproductive organs?  How do we know how shared that experience is cross culturally?

I have trouble defining the essence of womanhood as reproductive organs, because to me, the cultural layering upon that basic difference is the tale, the story of gendering.  We don't know what is natural, only what is conventional.  Only through cross cultural examination can we begin to find what meanings about having ovaries are biological and what are cultural.

Where does transgender come from? Where does the urge to have relations with your own sex come from -- surely an urge to transgress gender norms in heterosexist cultures, cultures that place a very high value on breeding?  Is it in the testes, ovaries?  Is it in the erectile tissue?  Is it in the hormones?  The anatomy of the brain, as researchers in the Netherlands have suggested?  Is it in brain chemistry?  Does it stem from genetic differences or from a hormone shock?  How does a brain that leads people to gender transgressive actions compare to a brain that does not?  Is the brain of a transgendered male like a non-tg female?  Good questions -- but unless someone on this list is doing breakthrough work in brain biology, not questions we will answer soon.

That leaves us looking at cultural influences.  Do TG males feel like women, or do they just not feel like men, and in this bi-polar culture, that means they assume they are women?  Is this the essence of defining women as the shadow of masculinity?  How are we to interpret the symbols of transgender when that is the only way we have of communicating about it, when we can't directly examine the similarities and differences?

Gender is a social construct, no matter how rooted it is in biological differences, and simple cultural examination, either over time or between cultures will show you that the definitions of "what a woman does," "what a man does," and "what people who are not simply men or women do" are far from constant.

How does a man feel?  What makes him a man?  What is manly and what is not manly?  Is there any simple consensus on this?  If we can't answer these questions, how can we answer how a woman feels?

I personally believe that sexuality has an enormous amount to do with gender -- that we contextualize our sexual urges in the context of appropriate gender roles, in the choices and words that we are given about who we are -- our gendering.  Gender roles are used to regulate sexual behavior, to define appropriate sexual behavior for people like us.  Yo me, it is not the study of the fraction of time we are actually engaged in sex acts, lost in a moment of passion, that teaches, but the dance around those sex acts, the courtship and mating rituals that expose our choices -- and these rituals are richly gendered.

I guess the thing that concerns me most is the apparent underlying assumption "Well, I don't feel like a woman, so how could any other male ever feel that way?"

To try to understand queer, transgressive behaviors in the context of if we would do them seems limiting.  The nature of transgressive behaviors is that they are not normative, they are not standard issue, not easily understandable to the mass of culture.  "Why would people want to do that when it makes me feel sick?  They must be sick."

To understand transgressive behaviors requires first accepting the the words and choices of the people who do them at face value.  It requires accepting that in their reality, their choices are pleasurable and correct, that their choices come from some genuine thing deep inside of them.

If we don't accept that, then we try to find how someone is so damaged, so twisted, that they would allow some other male to insert a penis into their own anus, for example.  I believe they do that because they love it, no matter what my choices are about that behavior.

If we try to examine other people's choices in the context of our feeling and our morality, rather than in the context of their feelings and their morality, our observations will be hopelessly biased, and we will never figure out what is going on.  This is a real challenge of queer studies -- it will bring up everything that squicks you and demand that you be able to see this as just another form in the rainbow of human behavior.  If you see others choices though your eyes, as about you, it will bring up all your stuff.

What does a woman feel like?  Can anyone born with an antomically male body actually think like a normative woman (whatever that is)?  What does a man feel like?  Can a man who engages in homosexual acts actually think like a normative man (whatever that is)?

The challenges of what normative means, and how our body, it's urges and the choices we make reflect on that are the questions of transgression, of queerness.

All I know is that the narratives of transgendered people, and the extreme measures that they will go to in breaking out of the gender role assigned at birth has assured me that they have a deep, in-born knowledge that they are different than other people with that genital configuration.  They face incredible stigma and still come, and I choose to see that as their own truth rather than some sort of warped behavior.

Does that mean that they are or are not a _______?  I don't know -- but I do know that the magic of assimilation and transformation means that, with enough work, they can enter any social role they want -- maybe not perfectly, but enough.

In other words, I accept their own individual narrative that drives their own mix of transgression and assimilation, even if it doesn't feel like the one I would ever choose.

Callan
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