Mobile Subjects: Transnational Imaginaries of Gender Reassignment

Mobile Subjects: Transnational Imaginaries of Gender Reassignment

by Aren Z. Aizura

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The first famous transgender person in the United States, Christine Jorgensen, traveled to Denmark for gender reassignment surgery in 1952. Jorgensen became famous during the ascent of postwar dreams about the possibilities for technology to transform humanity and the world. In Mobile Subjects Aren Z. Aizura examines transgender narratives within global health and tourism economies from 1952 to the present. Drawing on an archive of trans memoirs and documentaries as well as ethnographic fieldwork with trans people obtaining gender reassignment surgery in Thailand, Aizura maps the uneven use of medical protocols to show how national and regional health care systems and labor economies contribute to and limit transnational mobility. Aizura positions transgender travel as a form of biomedical tourism, examining how understandings of race, gender, and aesthetics shape global cosmetic surgery cultures and how economic and racially stratified marketing and care work create the ideal transgender subject as an implicitly white, global citizen. In so doing, he shows how understandings of travel and mobility depend on the historical architectures of colonialism and contemporary patterns of global consumption and labor.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478002642
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 10/25/2018
Series: Perverse Modernities: A Series Edited by Jack Halberstam and Lisa Lowe
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Aren Z. Aizura is Assistant Professor of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota and coeditor of The Transgender Studies Reader 2.

Read an Excerpt



Mining Ground Zero

When transgender emerged as an umbrella term attached to claims for rights and justice in the United States in the early 1990s, history was the vehicle used to animate those claims. Trans organizers involved in Transgender Nation and Transexual Menace wanted to make history through political organizing. These were the heady days of the 1993 protest at the American Psychological Association national convention, protesting the inclusion of gender identity disorder as a mental disorder in the DSM; the 1995 courthouse vigil for Brandon Teena in Falls City, Nebraska; and the emergence of Camp Trans, an annual protest of the trans-exclusive Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. Activists recognized that social change depended on the material production of written history. Gordene Mackenzie's book Transgender Nation, Leslie Feinberg's Transgender Warriors, Lou Sullivan's From Female to Male: The Life of Jack Bee Garland, and Jason Cromwell's Transmen andFTMs all took up this call. These historical narratives indexed a strong desire for ancestors. Addressed to trans readers, such historical accounts offer a sense of filiation and connection with a past experienced as lost, a past that must be reparatively reconstructed to regain both a sense of trans community and individual wholeness. For the non-transgender world, these historical accounts annex legibility and recognition for trans political claims by proving that trans and gender nonconforming people have always existed.

The figures inhabiting this lost past were legion. In the 1996 book Transgender Warriors, Feinberg relates spending an afternoon in 1974 at the New York City Museum of the American Indian looking at gender nonconforming clay figures of unspecified origin. The lesson, Feinberg writes, was that "trans people have not always been hated." From this anecdote Feinberg constructs an alternative history of gender in the United States that critiques gender normativity as a weapon of European colonization. In a more primordialist move, hir book frames Native gender nonconforming traditions as a "gift" to Feinberg — and by extension hir transgender readers. For Feinberg, this gift is a lost history that extends into the present to include the book's readers. It is a history of the transgender warriors who show us how to fight for survival in a hostile world, relieving the isolation of understanding trans people as rare and abnormal.

Transgender Warriors betrays a genealogical order, however, with its own cultural, geographical, and historical investments. The first chapter begins with an autobiographical account of Feinberg's childhood. As Feinberg relates, there were no trans or gender nonconforming people in Feinberg's hometown, no one to offer advice or to be a model. But the young Feinberg knew of at least one public figure who was as "similarly 'different'" as Feinberg hirself: Christine Jorgensen. Feinberg was three years old in 1953, the year Jorgensen returned from Copenhagen to the United States after having undergone "sex change" surgery there. Jokes abounded in Feinberg's family about Jorgensen's gender. Somehow, Feinberg writes, ze understood enough about Jorgensen to ask a babysitter whether Jorgensen was a man or a woman. "She isn't anything," the babysitter replied, "She's a freak." The timing of this discovery makes Jorgensen the transgender warrior for Feinberg. Jorgensen's story is proof of trans people's capacity to rise to triumph, despite the world's scorn: "Just as her dignity and courage set a proud example for the thousands of transsexual men and women who followed her path, she inspired me — and who knows how many other transgendered children. ... Christine Jorgensen's struggle beamed a message to me that I wasn't alone. She proved that even a period of right-wing reaction could not coerce each individual into conformity." Dignity, courage, individual triumph: to Feinberg, Jorgensen's story has an epic quality.

Jorgensen also represents the ground zero of transgender history for historian Susan Stryker. In "Christine Jorgensen's Atom Bomb" (1999), Stryker plays punningly on Jorgensen's appearance in the atomic age: "Through Jorgensen, the spectacle of transsexuality mushroomed into public consciousness during the early days of the Cold War with all the force of a blistering hot wind roaring across the Trinity Test Site. Transsexuality was nothing short of an atomic blast to the gender system." Like a time capsule, the myth of Christine Jorgensen packs dense layers of historical meaning into a tight, singular reference point for North American transsexual emergence — which is often unintentionally universalized as all transsexual history. It's not a new observation that Jorgensen has the status of the originary transsexual in transgender history. But origin myths emerge as much from the historiographic desires of those who write history as from the individuals who populate historical records or the epochal shifts that sever us from them. Queer historians have already turned from the business of generating reliable epistemological accounts to exploring the consequences of writing affective histories, mining, as Heather Love writes, the "identifications, the desires, the longings, and the love" that structure encounters with the queer past. Until recently debates about trans and gender nonconforming history have centered on reclaiming as transgender those historical figures whose cross-gender practices had been written into lesbian or gay history. As Love observes, however, to make methodological and knowledge production debates explicit means acknowledging our investments in particular visions of the queer or transgender past. In particular we might ask about the kind of temporal marker that the ground zero of Jorgensen represents. Ground zero refers not only to Jorgensen's appearance on the world stage, or her celebrity, but the event of her public return to the United States from Denmark. If the famous joke punned that Jorgensen "went abroad and came back a broad," the departure and return is just as important to her story as the event of gender transformation. Jorgensen's historical significance shows us how gender reassignment is structured by particular temporal and spatial logics. In this chapter I argue that the transsexual narrative of departure and return assumes an ideal trans subject who can mesh with the demands of liberal individualism by reinventing herself in toto. By provincializing this narrative — showing its grounding in specific geographical and historical locations — I question both the departure and return narrative and its primacy in transgender historiography. To place this story at the center of transgender history privileges whiteness and the imperative of social mobility, as well as an imperialist division of the world into a national here and a colonial elsewhere.

Many scholars have understood gender reassignment as governed by medicine and law; the "standard transsexual narrative" issues from the late twentieth-century sexological and psychiatric governmentality of transsexuality. This standard transsexual narrative has also, however, tended to structure popular biographical and autobiographical accounts addressed to a general readership. Jay Prosser observes that the act of writing autobiography constitutes the transsexual as a recognizable subject. The imaginary of transsexuality in its most public form must also make intelligible how transsexuality happens: its temporal rhythm, its pace, its chronology, and its narrative structure. Transition is the colloquial term in English that indexes the event of gender transformation, with all its attendant processes. Transition might include changing social and administrative gender markers (pronouns, name) as well as modifying one's physical body with hormones, surgery, or other techniques. No transsexual narrative is complete without an account of transition; transition, or as Prosser puts it, "how I got here," is a textual motor that both accounts for the transsexual subject's history and propels a coherent story in which the beginning is narrated retroactively to provide a causal link to the "end."

In "Exceptional Locations: Transsexual Travelogues," Prosser calls attention to the enormous archive of transsexual autobiographies that utilize a metaphor of journeying to create a consistent account of "how I got here." Of necessity this chapter works the same material as "Exceptional Locations," so a short reading of it is useful. Working with a pre-2000 canon, Prosser lists book titles to make the point, including A Girl's Journey to Manhood, April Ashley's Odyssey, and Journal of a Sex Change: Passage through Trinidad. Numerous other autobiographers reference some kind of transformative journey at the point of transition, such as Jan Morris in Conundrum. More recently the film Transmerica builds its story around a road trip that predictably ends in the protagonist's gender reassignment surgery. Prosser's prognosis is that the "desire to perceive a progressive pattern" precipitates these transsexual autobiographers' choice of a travel metaphor: "The life/narrative is a journey because there is a need to depart from somewhere (to get away from a specific body/place) and to arrive somewhere else (a place more habitable)." This nearly psychoanalytic, resolutely literary reading leads to an analytical predicament for Prosser. Since he reads the tendency for these autobiographers to resort to a journey metaphor as a psychic necessity, he forecloses the opportunity to conceptually separate the narrative itself from the individual psychological contingencies of being transsexual. The effects of this predicament are twofold. On the one hand, Prosser ontologizes transsexuality as a singular interior condition that requires a journey motif to explain itself. On the other, the only referent that can explain this interior condition is autobiography itself, which brings us back to the texts — as if they transparently relate the truth of transsexual experience. Prosser can't escape the language of traveling or journeying in this passage; following a close reading of two transsexual autobiographies, he suggests that the relation between geographic movement and gender transition is so close that "physical travel reads as a sublimation of the quest for a gendered home." For Prosser, it seems, transforming one's body really is crossing a gendered border. As Gayle Salamon observes, this desire for an "uncomplicated literalism" returns us to discourse rather than delivering us to a correspondence between the material and the narrative. Prosser also neglects to consider the narratives of trans people whose experience of gender identity or life trajectory evokes immobility, continuity, or remaining at home (whatever home might mean). While in Second Skins he considers Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues as an exception to the one-way journey narrative, Prosser manages to present a scenario in which all trans narrators are preoccupied with travel or are travelers. This not only reifies mobility as the defining narrative form for trans subjectivity but also elides how the subject position of "traveler" is itself racially and colonially marked.

Appropriately for the trajectory of this chapter, when Prosser does arrive at a materialist moment it concerns Christine Jorgensen. "From the moment it enters the popular lexicon and becomes a cultural phenomenon, transsexuality begins with a trip abroad and a return home: George Jorgensen's trip to Copenhagen and her return to the U.S. as Christine." This of course is because at the historical juncture in the 1950s and 1960s when Jorgensen, Jan Morris, and other early public trans women were writing, it was impossible to find a surgeon in the UK, Europe, or the United States who would perform GRS; trans people desiring surgery in the Global North had to travel. As Morris did, many trans women traveled to Casablanca, Morocco, to visit Dr. Georges Burou. This impels Prosser into a reading of the orientalist overtones of Morris's memoir Conundrum. Leaving aside this important text for the moment (and offering a teaser for the reading of Conundrum in chapter 3), it's important to question how Prosser moves on so swiftly from this materialist account rather than dwelling on the moment at which transsexuality enters the popular lexicon. What would happen if we did that work? What different accounts might we arrive at by deconstructing the travel metaphor's historical, geographical, and racially specific logics rather than understanding the travel metaphor as impelled by individual autobiographers? If we can productively dislodge transsexual travel metaphors from autobiography and instead read them as logics through which gender reassignment becomes an intelligible narrative in a range of public national contexts, who emerges as the ideal subject of that narrative? To explore these questions, I first deconstruct the contemporary idea of the transition vacation: the myth that trans people must take a short vacation before returning to their daily life, having changed their gender presentation. The idea of taking a vacation or being invisible at the moment of crossing contains the threat of gender indeterminacy and the possibility that gender may be performative and socially constructed.

I then trace a genealogy of what was specific about the origin moment of transsexual travel narratives. I engage with the place of Jorgensen in the transgender historical archive: how her story is remembered by later transsexual autobiographers and transgender historians. Transgender archivists negotiate a host of contradictions embedded in this emerging subjectivity — contradictions, I argue, that they use Jorgensen's narrative to reconcile.

Transsexuality repackages elements of modern identity itself, including desires for self-transformation and what Foucault calls the "attitude of modernity," laboring to make oneself in one's own ideal image, and the notion that medical science can radically transform a body. Jorgensen's story, and the departure and return narrative that grew from her example, institutes conflicting and contradictory tropes echoing the great themes of American modernity. These tropes index self-invention, beating unbeatable odds, and the triumph of the individual and of capitalist liberal individualism. I argue that the dominant trans travel narrative's emphasis on geographical mobility also necessitates social mobility. Further, I argue that respectability and social mobility map onto transsexuality as attributes of the "ideal" transsexual subject. I suggest that transsexual autobiographers' and historians' preoccupation with travel comes about not only because many of the first publicly documented gender reassignment cases involved international voyages but because of the specific geographic, cultural, political, and economic site in which transsexuality itself emerged: the era of American liberal individualism. It is precisely because Jorgensen's story can be narrated through a framework of liberal individualism that the travel narrative gains its literary or ideological force. I argue that as it emerged in the late twentieth century as a progress narrative, transsexuality is metaphorized not only as a journey through gendered space but as a kind of social mobility, premised on success and heroic acts of self-transformation. Geographic mobility in this context cannot be thought without its role in fantasies of social mobility and capitalist consumption. The availability of the idea that people could work on their body and reinvent themselves completely — consume self-transformation — was contingent upon a host of social and historical changes, not least the material conditions of the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In the final part of the chapter I provincialize the terms of this narrative of transsexual travel enabling social mobility. Provincializing, a term I draw from Dipesh Chakrabarty, allows us to question the process through which transgender studies has come to narrate trans history and to look outside the narrow confines of the North American origin story, for spatial and geographical logics govern temporal narratives. I consider how transgender historical accounts of Jorgensen as ground zero might be read differently outside of an epochalism marking Jorgensen (and transsexuality) as a herald of the postmodern condition. Moreover if we think about US transgender history from the perspective of settler colonialism, how might that unsettle the narrative of transition, surgical body modification, and sublime gendered embodiment that has come to define transsexual embodiment?


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction: Provincializing Trans  1
Part I
1. The Persistence of Trans Travel Narratives  29
2. On Location: Transsexual Autobiographies, Whiteness, and Travel  59
3. Documentary and the Metronormative Trans Migration Plot  03
Part II
Interlude  135
4. Gender Reassignment and Transnational Entrepreneurialisms of the Self  137
5. The Romance of the Amazing Scalpel: Race, Labor, and Affect in Thai Gender Reassignment Clinics  174
Epilogue: Visions of Trans Worlding  207
Notes  221
Bibliography  245
Index  269

What People are Saying About This

Transgender History: The Roots of Today's Revolution - Susan Stryker

"'Trans-.' The prefix itself denotes movement and boundary-crossing, and in this provocative new book Aren Z. Aizura deploys the rich metaphorics of mobility to interrogate how ‘transgender,’ as both critical concept and lived identity, moves across scales and locations, from the individual to the geopolitical. In discussing such varied topics as the trope of travel in narratives of gender transition, the persistence of geographical metaphors and Orientalist fantasies in transgender autobiographies, and the racialized global division of affective labor in Thai gender reassignment clinics that cater to white Westerners, Aizura activates all the politically freighted implications of analogizing gender change as immigration, tourism, settlement, or colonization."

Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora - Martin F. Manalansan IV

Mobile Subjects is a trenchantly argued, elegantly written, and deftly analyzed cultural study of the discursive and material practices of gender reassignment within a transnational frame. Mapping the political, affective, economic, and geocultural topographies that produce the various notions of ‘trans,’ Aren Z. Aizura offers a major work that will expand trans studies in an energized and provocative manner.”

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