This section includes eighty-six short original essays commissioned for the inaugural issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. Written by emerging academics, community-based writers, and senior scholars, each essay in this special issue, “Postposttranssexual: Key Concepts for a Twenty-First-Century Transgender Studies,” revolves around a particular keyword or concept. Some contributions focus on a concept central to transgender studies; others describe a term of art from another discipline or interdisciplinary area and show how it might relate to transgender studies. While far from providing a complete picture of the field, these keywords begin to elucidate a conceptual vocabulary for transgender studies. Some of the submissions offer a deep and resilient resistance to the entire project of mapping the field terminologically; some reveal yet-unrealized critical potentials for the field; some take existing terms from canonical thinkers and develop the significance for transgender studies; some offer overviews of well-known methodologies and demonstrate their applicability within transgender studies; some suggest how transgender issues play out in various fields; and some map the productive tensions between trans studies and other interdisciplines.
Somatomorph. Sō-ma?tō′-mōrf. Despite a century of linguistic history that charts our cultural-political efforts to satisfactorily capture the complexity inherent in the matrix of human sex, gender, and sexuality, we remain hindered by an inadequate lexicon. The generally accepted meme “trans” originates from early medical language adopted in the late 1800s to describe people now referred to as “transdressers” (Williams 2012). As first coined, it established a lexicon of “difference” for those who failed to align with traditional biomedical and sociocultural expectations of sex and gender. Despite its origins, the word trans has evolved as the result of desires among those in both the trans-identified political community and the medical community to derive a more sufficient, meta-inclusive meme. Despite these good intentions, however, the unfortunate result continues to be an insufficiently complex meme, resulting in the exclusion of those who live beyond the expected Western biomedical, sexed, gendered, and sexual identity. This continued exclusion creates social and political inequalities and disparities in numerous aspects of daily life that translate into long-term, negative biomedical and psycho-socioeconomic impacts on those identified for various reasons as “trans” (Ettner, Monstrey, and Eyler 2007; Grant, Mottet, and Tanis 2011; Redman 2011; Witten and Eyler 2012).
For many individuals who would claim the identity transsexual, the root of their challenge is an inherent disconnection (lack of harmony) between the internalized perception of self and the embodied, corporal representation of themselves to others. Thus while sex, gender, and sexuality may be important ingredients in the identity recipe, they are sociolinguistic constructs that emerge from the physical corpus and its subsequent window dressing embedded within the totality of the sociocultural politics of a person's environment. In the language of complexity theory, the corpus is core and thus primary; the rest — including perceived sex, depicted sex, and representations of gender — is emergence.
Words like transsexual and transgender fail to accurately describe the core relationship to the body because they originate from the external, social perspective rather than from the inherent, material root: the body. While the language of “trans” may imply a transformation in the material being of the body or in the projection of sexed identity, it fails to capture the complexity of transformation. Moreover, the meme “trans sexuality” inadvertently and unfortunately implies connection with sexual identity that is simply incorrect. Given that the corpus is core in the complex identity being, the word transsexual should be replaced with a more accurate term so as to indicate that the challenge is around genital sex rather than sexuality or sexual identity. The word transgender fails to capture the now accepted multidimensionality of “gender” and does not speak to the corporal aspects of trans-identity. In addition, prefixes such as cis and trans — prefixes that emerged from the field of organic chemistry as descriptors of molecular conformation states — when used as modifiers of words like sex and gender, continue to promote a binary. That is, one's identity becomes either cis or trans rather than understood to be a continuum in which cis and trans coexist as descriptors within a larger semantic range.
In a frustrated effort to neutralize some of the stigma around the various trans identities, I first coined the word transcorporal (Witten 2007a, 2007b). This word offsets the stigma around the juxtaposition of trans and sex/gender/sexuality by replacing the emergent constructs of sex, gender, and sexuality with the core construct of the corporal nature of trans identity. In doing so, it somewhat levels the playing field with respect to discussions around trans versus non-trans bodies. However, it does not engage the larger queer population that chooses to bend, blend, and blur or to alternatively define the semiotics of the body and its myriad, complex representations. Nor does it extend its inclusion to a multicultural sensibility. Though the historical evolution of the meme “trans” reached for an inclusiveness for the breadth of the “condition” of trans, the actual effect was to reiterate the non-normality once again, even in the guise of transcorporal being.
The larger question then becomes, how do we queer the insufficient meme “trans” to simultaneously escape the recapitulation of difference and fully encompass the complexity of human sexed, gendered, and sexual being? Can the meme “trans” be queered enough to embrace those who claim such identities as genderqueer, gender-bending, gender-blending, gender-variant, gender non-conforming, XTX, WBM, MBW, cross-dresser, transvestite, and a host of other descriptors? And given the organic, grassroots emergence of the concept of trans being, how do we preserve the sanctity of the historical language that other population members find more relevant to their state of being? Finally, how do we create a linguistic landscape that nullifies, to a greater extent, the significant negativity associated with the historical as well as the political semantics currently used to describe the Western trans community?
To address these questions, we revisit the idea that the core challenges or objectives faced by trans-identified individuals revolve around manipulations of the body, or soma, and what emerges through the body into the public as representations of sex, gender, and sexuality. Some of the biophysical manipulations incurred in transformation of the soma may be permanent; others may not. Some of the changes may be subtle, while others may be flagrant and readily apparent to those beyond the self. In our way of thinking, an individual who has chosen to morph the body, the soma, and to then engage in the sociolinguistic and evidentiary representation of the soma beyond the self has become a “somatomorph” or ought to be somatomorphically identified.
The phrase “somatomorphically identified” is semantically more inclusive of the complex human matrix of sex, gender, and sexualized being (Witten and Eyler 2012: ch. 6). Somatomorph is a continuum descriptor rather than a binary term; morphing is a continuum construct, while trans implies a discrete relationship between one state of being an another. Use of the term soma refocuses our sociolinguistic understanding of those we understand now to be trans back to the prime root — the body — while still acknowledging the emergent relevance of sexuality and gender. Because somatomorph implies a dynamic, continuum sexed-being, it encompasses additional continuum identities such as gender-bending, and gender-blending — identities made comprehensible through somatic change. Similarly, for those who choose to physically change their bodies in a permanent way, somatomorph is equally appropriate because these individuals are changing their soma. Various cultural gender identities can also fall under the aegis of somatomorphic identity, as gender is a sociocultural consequence of morphing the soma either through actual physical interventions such as surgery and/or hormones or through less permanent means such as makeup and dress.