Em[bodi]ment of Idenity:
Constructing the Transgender
Professor and Coordinator
Center for the Study of Sexualities
National Central University, Chungli, Taiwan
is the last lecture in my lecture series on emerging challenges to
feminist theory and politics. I
have chosen to end the series with a lecture on transgender issues
because of two important reasons that have to do with the developing
governance of mainstream feminist gender politics in Taiwan.
of all, fully utilizing the political volatility of a
post-martial-law Taiwan, feminist gender politics has made great
progress in recent years, leading to changes not only in the legal
realm but also in gender education.
Yet, while gender equality has been made into an important
issue to be implemented by the state, a heightened gender
consciousness rigidified into an institutionalized gender framework
has also spread, splitting open the many otherwise murky areas of
daily life, and making it all the more awkward for the differently
gendered to manage their already restricted social existence.
I think it is high time for us to review these developments
and rethink the limitations of “gender politics” as it has been
narrowly conceived by increasingly mainstreaming feminists.
while the media have at least helped the many isolated transgenders
catch a glimpse of like-bodied and like-minded souls out
there—albeit through the deaths, suicides, and arrests of gender
ambiguous person—the limited narratives that make up the
transgender cultural representation are often further
short-circuited by essentializing tendencies in the identity
politics of feminism as well as, unfortunately, that of the newly
formed gay and lesbian movements.
An LGBT (Les-Gay-Bi-Trans) alliance that re-conceives of
gender/sexuality identities in terms of inclusiveness rather
than exclusiveness is still in the making. I am hoping that exploring the transgender issue and its
challenges to both gender politics and the broader identity politics
could help usher in a new phase of gender/sexuality politics in
the approval of the first legal sex reassignment surgery (SRS) in
Taiwan’s transgender representation formally bifurcated into two
clearly distinct categories.
There are those who have sought medical assistance and are
diagnosed as suffering from gender identity disorders (GID) or
gender dysphoria and may receive eventual sex reassignment surgery
after a long monitored process of psychological evaluation as well
as family negotiation.
Legitimation is at least available at the price of
there are those who are left outside or choose to remain outside
this formal medical process and thus have to do without the
validation of medical authorities.
Their presence is glimpsed through, but also eclipsed by,
media reports of either spectacular cross-dressing performers (known
as cross-gender performers反串藝人)
or underground cross-dressing sex workers in various unmarked pubs
(known as “Third-Sex PRs”第三性公關). The more unfortunate transgenders end up in crime reports of
“perverts” who were said to have been caught by the police while
peeping, stealing, falsifying identities, or conducting other
illegal activities. Compared
with those who have gained legitimacy under the protective umbrella
of certified transsexualism and can resort to medical diagnosis to
explain their non-conforming gender expressions, the others who
reside beyond the “intelligible genders”
are often subjected to unreasonable questioning and rude prying, not
to mention vicious stigmatizing, that aim to force them to comply
with one certain gender position.
increasing visibility of transgender images does not necessarily
make the complex interactions in transgenders’ daily lives easier.
Worse, recently established notions of gender equality and
gender consciousness have only tended to solidify the two-gender
system and its rigid power distribution. Demanding gender equality and protection-oriented state
policies for women’s safety, mainstream women’s NGOs have made
headways in gender politics mostly by emphasizing/demonizing male
power and male violence (as demonstrated in sexual harassment and
sexual assault cases) as well as highlighting women’s
disadvantages and powerlessness in the presence of such danger.
Set in relief against a cultural context where the gender
grid seems to be loosening, this kind of gender-polarizing strategy
has fostered a cultural imaginary that continues to focus on
horrific scenes of male lust and male violence.
In 2001, sensational reports about miniature cameras and
taping devices being found in some women’s dorms or restrooms left
a nation of women in fear and anger.
Unfortunately, in an age where cross-dressing has also
increasingly become a popular form of self-expression, such fear and
anger against men fed directly into paranoia readings of transgender
males outside the performing business or off the medical lists are
read as evil and perverted men who dress in women’s clothing only
to sneak into women’s private spaces to get a peep at them
undressing in the ladies restrooms or women’s spas.
The state’s promise to improve women’s safety, on the
other hand, resulted in more rigid interrogations into the comings
and goings of anyone suspected of cross-dressing, which only makes
the restricted life of the transgendered even more fragile.
feminist gender politics has helped create a social context more
inhospitable to the male-to-female transgendered, feminist gender
education has at the same time continued to overlook the gender
violence suffered by the transgendered, which happens to be the same
gender violence that women have always suffered from.
On April 20, 2000, Yong-Chi Yie (葉永誌),
one middle school student in Southern Taiwan, was found dead on the
floor in the boy’s restroom at his school.
No explanation was given about the cause of death except that
he “probably” fell and hit his head against the ground; fearing
scandal, the school had washed the crime scene clean right after
finding the boy’s body, thus erasing all traces of possible
evidence. Later on, it
was revealed that the boy had long suffered all kinds of humiliation
and taunting at school because of his nonconforming gender
often laughed at his femininity and even forced his pants off to
check his gender identity. Right
before his death, he had as usual asked the teacher’s permission
to leave the classroom five minutes early so that he could use the
restrooms alone. Sadly,
that’s the last time he was seen alive. As the Taiwanese public lacked a transgender outlook, news of
his death aroused interest only among the gay community, which took
it as another example of homophobia against sissy boys.
Women’s groups, on the other hand, remained quiet about the
case; after all, it was a boy, not a girl, who got killed.
Biology proved to be more deep-rooted than feminists had
the death of this little transgender boy had torn open the silence
and suffering of many transgender youths as they struggled through
the highly gender-divided schooling system of Taiwan. One 35-year-old pre-op transsexual teacher painfully recalls
a similar incident in his youth.
Studying at an all boys’ middle school, he was forced to
find moments right after recess was over when he could use the women
teachers’ restrooms. One
day, unfortunately, he was found out by three of his classmates.
The boys wanted to verify his gender, so they dragged him
into the boys’ restrooms and stripped him.
Upon finding his male body, the boys went ahead and forced
him to perform oral sex, masturbation, and even anal sex for them.
Something as shameful as this of course remained unreported. After all, how could the little boy even begin to tell what
had happened? What
words could he use to describe it? (If
it had been difficult for innocent young girls to report the details
of rapes, how do you think the transgender youth, who had always
felt something was “wrong” with himself, would feel?)
What’s worse, life had to go on in school.
So from that moment on, this transsexual youth, like many
others in similar predicaments, had to use all his wits and energy
to avoid or manipulate encounters with possible offenders on the
very campus where he was supposed to lead a happy and fruitful life.
ideals of gender equality education may have challenged the
differential treatment of boys and girls, yet they have left in tact
the basic division by gender commonly practiced in most schools,
which had been the nightmare of transgender youths.
Feminist critique of gender violence may have exposed
most misogyny, but gender violence on campus directed at transgender
boys is often collapsed into simple violence among boys, thus
overlooking the underlying misogyny directed at effeminate boys.
In fact, such gender violence is so pervasive that when asked
about how she managed her adolescence, another 30-year-old
transsexual woman who had just completed her surgery says
peacefully: “I can’t even remember my school days.
I only know if you want me to go through that again, it would
kill me.” Struggling
against such unmentionable hardships during the golden years of
their education, transgender youths in Taiwan are often deprived of
a peaceful and vibrant environment for learning, which only adds to
their difficulties in seeking employment or living a fulfilling life
later, as well as opening up their transgender identity to
deprivations and difficulties are not necessarily unique to
transgenders but often include a clear gender reference.
On May 7, 2003 famous Taiwanese transsexual Lin Kuo-Hua (林國華)
was found dead in a hotel room.
She had killed herself, 5 years after her SRS, by taking
sedatives and then suffocating herself with a plastic bag.
Lin became famous because she had struggled many years to get
approval for surgery but was not able to pass the psychological
doctors said Lin had harbored “unrealistic” hopes for her life
after surgery: in plain language, Lin’s plain looks would work
against her plan to get a job “as a woman” as well as finding
someone to love her “as a woman.”
Surprisingly, such blatant gender stereotype and gender
prejudice against woman were never picked up by mainstreaming
feminists, who were only too busy protecting “real women.”
It remained for members of the transgender support group,
established in the fall of 2000, to stand up and condemn such loaded
statements in the memorial they held in Lin’s memory.
mainstream Taiwanese feminists had not done enough to restructure
the gender system so as to give the transgenders more room to
breathe, they certainly have provided the feminist orthodoxy that
views the latter’s project of body/identity construction as
nothing but a duplication of existing gender norms and stereotypes.
Yet my interviews reveal time and again that the
self-reflexive projects of the transgendered are always mediated
through the cumulative experiences of their own contradictory and
incongruent coupling of body/identity, which results in constant
attempts to “trans-”gress/“trans-”form existing gender
categories. When asked
about their prospective gender images, the male-to-female
transgenders claimed a wide variety of “female” gender
expressions that certainly range beyond the typical: one wanted to
be strong and be able to stand up against chauvinistic men, another
saw herself as an enticing slut out to ensnare men, still another
was determined to become a feminist.
The female-to-male transgenders, on the other hand, have had
enough experience with oppressive masculinity in their own lives
that none of them wanted to be “like” men.
Judith Halberstam has suggested that “identity might best
be described as process with multiple sites for becoming and
Faced with such subjects who are not only refashioning their
bodies but also refashioning gender identities, all identity
theories and gender theories, instead of focusing on further
consolidating gender boundaries, establishing gender monitoring
systems, or second-guessing unusual gender performances, should
actively provide supportive and empowering discourses for the
all, the latter are not only reconstructing their bodies/identities,
but also reconstructing our genders (which certainly constitutes one
of the main thrusts of feminism).
feminist gender politics demonstrated inhospitality toward the
transgendered because of its blindness to gender variance and its
intolerance for gender crossing, Taiwanese gays and lesbians who had
been affected by the feminist gender ideology likewise found it
difficult to come to terms with transgendered self-expressions among
them. To give a
concrete example, under the inspiration of feminist thought, lesbian
identity finally became viable in the early 1990s in Taiwan.
Yet, at the same moment, lesbian debates over the T (Tomboy,
femme) gender role division began raging too.
Butches suddenly became the culprits of gender inequality,
for mainstream Taiwanese feminism implies that any display of
masculinity is helping patriarchy consolidate its domination.
Masculine women were thus seen as copying male styles and
adopting male temperaments and were thus susceptible to feminist
meaning lesbians who reject the T-Po gender role division) became a
lesbian golden rule; after all, “woman” loving “woman” has
already dictated that there should be only one given gender role.
It follows then that transgender butches need to repent and
rid themselves of internalized patriarchal influences.
along with increased legitimacy for sexual preference and sexual
identities achieved through movement activism, the gay community
also became increasingly serious about its gender image.
In September 2000, Taipei city government provided funding to
host its first Gay Festival at the most pristine movie complex in
Taipei City, the Warner Village.
The Festival was greatly livened by the presence of drag
queens that day, which was obviously quite news-worthy.
As media coverage tended to concentrate on the more dramatic
and theatrical, the queens got a lot of coverage.
Later on, fierce mud-slinging broke out on gay BBSs on the
internet where the queens were severely chastised for making gays
“look bad” and for dominating media attention. The
criticism against drag queens in fact followed upon a previous round
of fierce debates over the gender performance of sissy gays
(nicknamed “CC gays”). In
both cases, as mainstreaming desires of the sexually marginal met
with feminist-originated gender politics, an aversion toward
transgendered representations seems to be a natural result.
the general public, such aversion toward the transgendered has also
been strengthened by stories about falsified gender identities of
the transgendered, which, for the limited social resources granted
the transgendered, often extends into minor crimes of deceit or
fraud. In June of 2002,
an upstart Taiwanese aborigine singer (秀蘭瑪雅)
went to the media claiming that she had been deceived by her
boyfriend with whom she had been living for a few months and even
got their wedding pictures taken. But then she found out that he was “really” a she.
The “really” that we hear so often associated with the
identity of the transgendered points to a persistent affirmation of
“biology is destiny” or more precisely “genitals are
destiny”: whatever physical equipment you are born with determines
your social gender. The
story reminds us of the famous American jazz musician Billy Tipton
who died at the age of 73 after a successful career in music as a
man, only to be discovered by his grieving adopted daughter that he
was “actually” woman-bodied.
Upon learning about Tipton’s story, American feminists
quickly read his life as a woman forced into cross-dressing because
of patriarchal gender prejudice, thus easily erasing his transgender
identity. It is only by
being read as a woman that Tipton’s life story of “deception,”
while still considered unfair for his unknowing wife, would at least
be understandable and thus forgivable.
However, that kind of sympathetic reading was not extended to
the less successful transgendered lives, for the eagerness for
social approval and self-affirmation often leads other marginal
subjects to make every effort to distinguish themselves from the
more unfortunate ones. When
Oscar-winning movie “Boys Don’t Cry” was shown in Taiwan, the
main character, Brandon Teena, who had been accused of falsifying
identities and credit card fraud before he was shot to death in 1993
by two men furious to have found out that he was “really” a she,
was criticized by Taiwanese lesbians as nothing but a “lousy T”
who took advantage of the trust of innocent country girls.
The criticism not only erased Teena’s transgendered life
but expressed a class attitude that extends little sympathy toward
social deprivation. These
controversial cases demonstrate for us the desperate need for a more
complex gender framework that would be sensitive toward gender
variance as well as gender ambiguity, and would challenge the
truth-regime of biology that imposes accusations of “deception”
or “falsehood” on the stories of life that transgenders have
struggled to construct for their continued existence. In
the meantime, the class prejudice that occasionally surfaces in
discussions of transgender lives has to be dealt with too.
the emergence of multiple transgender websites and discussion boards
on the internet, the establishment of the first formal transgender
support group, (Taiwan TG Butterfly Garden) in 2000, and the
trans-gender activism of sex radicals since then, Taiwan has now
finally begun to recognize transgenders on the latter’s own terms.
A new term “transgender” (跨性別)
has also been introduced into the Chinese vocabulary in an effort to
replace the medical terms of GID or gender dysphoria, as well as to
afford the broadest umbrella term for all of the differently
gendered. The trans
community is now actively organizing to educate the public as well
as other sexual marginal groups, as well as trans individuals
themselves, of the diversified faces of transgenderism.
There is of course still a long way to go but we are already
seeing an LGBT alliance on the horizon.
How would Taiwanese mainstream feminists respond to such
recent developments? Will
they rethink their own rigid two-gender politics and its
limitations? The LGBT
alliance is certainly not going to wait.
Trans-gender politics is already in the air.
The research reported here took place
in 2000 and 2001 with 15 members from the Taiwan Transgender
Butterfly Garden, a transgender support group which I helped
In choosing this line of inquiry, I am hoping to describe “the
transgendered” not as an exclusive identity position, in other
words, not as an independent group of subjects distinct from
gays and lesbians and other sexual minorities.
Instead, “transgender” would be used as a term that
describes the many diversities of gender variance and gender
ambiguity that we see among varied populations. However, at the same time, I also respect the self-choice of
transgendered individuals who prefer to be referred to as a
certain category of transgender identities.
The first widely-known Taiwanese recipient of sex reassignment
surgery, male to female “Jane,” completed her surgery in
1981 but remained an isolated case of spectacle and later moved
to the United States to get married. Her recent conditions are unknown.
choose not to follow the usual classification of TS
(transsexual), TV (transvestite), CD (cross-dressers), TG
(transgender), and IS (intersexual) here, not only because such
identities are not necessarily adequate to capture the varied
and temporally fluid self-identities of the differently gendered
as they experiment with the construction of their body as well
as their identity, but also because it often happens that the
claim of an identity still involves strategic maneuvers that
maintain a rather contingent relationship with the social
example, the cross-gender performers may be heterosexual men,
gays, transsexuals waiting for surgery, transgendered,
cross-dressers, etc. who are using the performance as a way of
occasional cross-dresser may decide to take hormones to grow
bigger breasts for his job as a PR hostess.)
Although sex reassignment surgery can be performed upon
confirmation with two different psychological evaluations,
Taiwanese surgeons often make it a rule that the patient’s
parents must sign an agreement before surgery is performed for
fear that the uninformed parents may bring mutilation charges
against the surgeon afterwards.
This requirement, established more for the protection of
surgeons than for any other reason, has become the biggest
obstacle for male-to-female transsexuals seeking SRS, whose
parents are bound by traditional Chinese values that tend to see
such acts as either castration or more importantly the
breaking-off of family lineage.
Such obstacles have forced many male-to-female
transsexuals to go for surgery in Thailand where no such
requirement stands. This
may be one reason why Taiwan’s sex reassignment surgery is
unusually more advanced in female-to-male cases where the
surgeons had more chance for practice.
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of
Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), pp. 17-18.
In describing these men as cross-dressed, I am referring to
their activity (which are readily observable) rather than
their identity (which usually calls for a personal
all, there is no direct line between activity and identity: a
cross-dressed “male” could very well be a transsexual
awaiting or going through sex reassignment procedure, a
transvestite going through his daily routine, an occasional
cross-dresser, a gay drag queen, a person who is still
experimenting with his own image to decide on his gender
identity, or even a regular heterosexual male who is attending a
talent show dressed as a woman. For the hypersensitive women’s groups, though, the mere
fact of men cross-dressing as women already constitutes
suspicion and may even spell threat.
Taipei City’s effort since 2000 to improve law and order as
well as rid the city of drunk driving has resulted in numerous
check-points throughout the city at night, thus intimidating
transgenders and seriously impinging their right to the use of
See Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity (Durham, NC:
Duke UP, 1998), p. 21.
The debates were most visible in the oldest lesbian publication
in Taiwan, Girl Friends.
Ironically, the criticizing gays were exactly the ones
who could not even bring themselves to come out on these
occasions; in contrast, the queens were always the ones who
braved media gaze with queer provocation.
Such a reading that erases the specificity of transgendered
lives is quite typical of feminists who embrace a rather rigid
gender theory. Diane Middlebrook, biographer for the famous American
transgender jazz musician Billy Tipton, insists that Tipton was
not a hermaphrodite, nor a transsexual. Rather,
she was an actor. Middlebrook
says: “I believe Billy’s relationship to herself was female.
She was the actor;
he was the role.” With
such rigidly gendered eyes, whatever is transgender is finally
reduced to biological gender. http://www.stanford.edu/dept/news/stanfordtoday/ed/9705/9705fea602.shtml
As transgenders struggle for legitimacy, they have not been able
to spare much friendship and support for the highly stigmatized
transgenders who are doing sex work.
Nor have they been able to comprehend the lives of those
transgenders who refuse to be fixed to one end of the binary
opposition between being a transsexual (surgically transforming
the body) or a cross-dresser (leaving the body in tact while
taking up the clothing of the other gender).
The essentializing tendencies of identity politics are
only beginning to be reflected upon, and the transgender
community affords the best site to continue such reflections.