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2003-07-04 IGS Evening Seminar, Ochanomizu University, Tokyo, Japan

The Em[bodi]ment of Idenity: 
Constructing the Transgender

Josephine Ho
Professor and Coordinator
Center for the Study of Sexualities
National Central University, Chungli, Taiwan

Tonight 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.

First 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. 

Secondly, 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 Taiwan.[2]

With the approval of the first legal sex reassignment surgery (SRS) in 1988,[3] Taiwan』s transgender representation formally bifurcated into two clearly distinct categories.[4]  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.[5]  Legitimation is at least available at the price of pathologization.  Then 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」[6] 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.

The 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 practices.  Cross-dressing 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.[7]  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.[8]

If 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 expression.  Classmates 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 claimed.

Yet 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.

Feminist 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 disdainful criticism.

Such 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 evaluations.  The 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.

If 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 being.」[9]  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 transgendered.  After 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).

If 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, butch)-Po (, femme) gender role division began raging too.[10]  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 critique.  「Bu-fen」 (不分, 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.

Similarly, 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.[11]  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.

For 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.[12]   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.

With 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.[13]  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.


[1] 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 organize.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] I 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 context.  (For 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 living.  An occasional cross-dresser may decide to take hormones to grow bigger breasts for his job as a PR hostess.)

[5] 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.

[6] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), pp. 17-18.

[7] 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 announcement).  After 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.

[8] 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 social space.

[9] See Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1998), p. 21. 

[10] The debates were most visible in the oldest lesbian publication in Taiwan, Girl Friends.

[11]  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.

[12] 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.

[13] 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.

★☆ 特典:Discussions講座現場實錄 ★☆