Gender Embodiment and Trans Subjectivity (oral report)

(這是我2004年4月24日受邀TCS Colloquium在Singapore會議中的發言)

I’d like to begin by stating that (1) I came to Singapore with the understanding that I am not writing to make a direct contribution to the encyclopedia project, so whatever I am writing or reporting here today in no way represents an “entry” to the concept of “gender,” which I am sure many of you have great expectations for.  (2) Since yesterday morning as the colloquium unfolded, I have been thinking about how to relay the implications of my paper for the project of this colloquium, so this morning, instead of reading from the paper that is in your hands which I had prepared before coming to Singapore, I have, in the limited time I had yesterday, written up something else that is sort of a meta statement on my paper.  In other words, I will try to talk about some of the areas in which research on the topic of transgenderism could be related to the project of the encyclopedia.  For those of you who might be interested in my research in transgenderism in relation to the body, please consult the text provided in the packet.

I think that my report here could demonstrate some of the problematic dimensions of the concept of “gender” as it is being developed in the Taiwan context, and perhaps in other similar contexts as well:

  1. The question of gender and the nation. At least within the Taiwanese context, the rapid ascendancy and legitimation of the concept of “gender” both as a social category and as a policy category have been helped and promoted most importantly by a nationalist project that aims to turn women into, more often than not, mere passive consumers of electoral politics. And increasingly, mainstream women’s groups, inspired and led by the self-proclaimed “state-feminists,” are acting as brokers in mediating women’s votes so as to bring women into the public sphere en masse in an effort to feminize the state into its prescribed role of “care-takers of its people.”  (I will get to the consequences of such claims later on.)  The rise of the concept “gender” is further propelled by a nationalist aspiration that aims to affirm Taiwan’s nation-statehood by demonstrating its willingness to live up to international standards of performance in terms of paternalistic measures that claim to protect women and children against specifically sex-related travesties such as trafficking or pornography.  The intersection between gender constructions of the nation as well as nationalist constructions of gender, at least in the case of Taiwan, has led to a serious simplification or rarification of the concept of gender, which should be an interesting topic for all concerned researchers and activists.
  2. The question of gender power. It is already common sense that genders entail differential distributions of power, but, as my paper on gender embodiment and trans subjectivity tries to show, nowadays you can no longer make the simple statement that the male gender oppresses the female gender—as the subjects who occupy such gender positions come from varied trans-gender experiences as well as multifarious presentations and performances of gender.  As the transgender population increases its presence due to changes in the gender culture, gender realities in most countries are developing much more complexity.  Yet, the power blocks in some social contexts are still using the rhetoric of simple gender polarities so as to manipulate various different kinds of power through the language of victimology.  After all, the language of victimology can not only help empower women (and here I mean real/biological women), but also help the women (and men) in power to maintain that power and control through a continuous invocation of this kind of manichaestic drama of gender oppression, a drama in which transgenders become odd suspicious characters.  Such characterization of gender power in fact displaces many different types of oppression and has broad effects not only on gender politics but more importantly on class politics, sexuality politics, and age politics as recent additions to the Taiwanese criminal codes demonstrates.  One prominent case in mind may be the Japanese originated cultural practice of enjo-kosai which, as it is practiced in Taiwan, has transgressed quite a few social boundaries such as age, gender, and class.
  3. The question of gender and two kinds of knowledge relevant to the case of transgederism. Modern women are increasingly informed by new knowledges of female power, namely feminist thoughts about the mental, psychosocial, or even sexual powers of women. But as much as the transgender subjects are involved in continuous gender performativity in their daily lives, transgender subjects, especially the MTFs, have generally been deprived of opportunities and encouragement to participate in such new knowledges of female power, and ironically end up being criticized by the mainstreaming feminists for “reproducing patriarchal values concerning the female gender.”  Furthermore, due to an overall ignorance about and animosity toward transgenderism, knowledges about transgenderism are used by transgender subjects themselves less as an active internalized force to constitute themselves than externally as a justification for their “condition” so as to pass the psychiatric evaluations and qualify for sex reassignment surgery, as the case of Agnes did in Harold Garfinkle’s discussion of ethnomethodology.  Whether out of self-protection or resistance to mis-readings by mainstream culture, transgender subjects have maintained a certain degree of inscrutability that also makes it difficult for them to produce empowering knowledges about themselves as well as to produce resisting discourses against the totalization of medical sciences.  It might have been hoped that the newly instated gender equity education in Taiwan could help make room for the dissemination of new gender knowledges as well as supporting trans subjects in the constitution of their body as well as subjectivity.  Unfortunately, gender equity education, under the auspice of mainstream women’s groups, whose values are being institutionalized as laws and policies of social discipline, has become mostly a vehicle for campaigns against pornography, and for advocacy of abstinence, which does very little for transgender subjects nor their subject formation.
  4. The question of gender/sexuality in relation to transgender subjects. Much has been written about the symbiotic relation between gender and sexuality. Within the context of Taiwan, in particular, dubious gender performativity is conveniently read as an expression of a dubious–i.e. perverse–sexuality.  In other words, the etiology of a dubious gender performance is to be found in sexual perversions.  And as the limited representation of transgender subjectivity is dominated by medical discourses that tend to pathologize such subjects, and as our sensationalizing media tend to present cases of such gender performance in a context of criminalization/demonization, as preludes to possible sexual crimes, this negative understanding of transgenderism has consistently resulted in its easy collapse into problematic, hence criminal, sexuality, which in turn has made life utterly difficult for trans subjects who have to struggle not only against misgivings against gender variance but, more importantly, stigma in relation to sexuality.  It is one of the sites where the knowledge/power couplet has played out its most dramatic and devastating effects.