Abstract

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.

Redrawing the body's sex contours affirms the feminist mantra that biology is not destiny. Surgery has been an important part of trans agency and medical transitioning since Michael Dhillon began the first of thirteen operations to reconstruct his morphological sex in 1946. Trans surgery is any surgery that alters the body's primary and secondary sex characteristics, but this was not always the case when surgery was institutionalized in the gender clinics of large research universities like Johns Hopkins and Stanford in the 1950s and 1960s. The desire for surgery not only became a definitive characteristic of transsexuality, distinguishing it from other so-called disorders like cross-dressing, transvestism, and homosexuality. But it was also narrowly conceived as the reconstruction of morphological sex, which excluded trans people who wanted to keep their genitals intact from treatment. The formalization of the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care in 1979 liberalized trans people's access to surgery by extending diagnostic powers to clinicians and doctors outside the university gender clinics and opening up additional avenues of medical transitioning for trans people. Many trans people began having surgeries to masculinize or feminize parts of their body while leaving their genitalia intact. In turn, this helped produce a proliferation of transition trajectories in a multitude of directions, enabling (in part) the emergence of a critical transgender movement in the 1990s and debunking clinical assumptions that binary gender was the end goal of transitioning.

A “somatechnology” perspective views trans surgery as part of a larger techne of discursive and institutional practices (law, medicine/science, art, education, information and surveillance technologies) through which trans bodies are constituted, positioned, and lived. Sometimes more weight is given to structural practices in the substantiation of trans identities, which has been critiqued for its lack of emphasis on the role of trans people's agency as coconstitutive with technology and dispositifs in the making (and remaking) of trans bodies. While the former perspective sheds important light on somatechniques of trans identities, the emphasis is nonetheless on how trans bodies/identities are affected by discursive and nondiscursive practices. Equally important is understanding how trans people affect the evolution of discourses and technologies through individual/personal as well as collective resistance, organization, and struggle.

A good example of balancing both perspectives is that of Dr. Harold Gillies and Michael Dhillon. Gillies had been performing pedicle-flap phalloplasty to reconstruct the maimed genitals of war veterans for more than three decades, since inventing the surgery during WWI. Yet it was not until a transsexual man, Dhillon, contacted him that Gillies realized the more extensive potential of his surgical technique to assist not only cisgender but also transsexual males. Dhillon's transsexual body was both a fleshly and symbolic catalyst and field for Gillies's surgical imagination to extend and develop further. Cutting, splicing, pulling, tucking, and transplanting nerves, arteries, blood vessels, skin, fat, and muscle tissues, trans surgeries rewrite the functional and phenomenological circuitry of human bodies and change how subjects experience and express gender and sexuality. In doing so, trans bodies not only rewrite normative scripts of binary sex and gender. They are also (re)writing medical knowledge of human bodies and surgical practice, as surgeons, spurred by the needs of their patients, continue experimenting with new technologies and practices to produce better results.

Trans people seek sex reassignment surgery for many reasons, all of which highlight the significance of the body's fleshy contours and chemistry to gender identity and expression. Some form of surgical modification of sex characteristics is usually required in most countries to legally change the gender marker of identification documents, which is essential to trans people's mobility — social, economic, and geographical. Surgery gives fleshly form to proprioceptive gender, bringing bodily matter into alignment with gender self-image, and allows trans people new embodiments of experiencing/expressing gender and sexuality that were not possible before surgery. Some trans people's pursuit of surgery indicates how the performance of gender (e.g., cross-dressing, gait, mannerisms, motility, verbal expression, etc.) falls short in regards to some people's ability to fully embody and express their preferred gender identity. Trans people suffer discrimination, abuse, and even death when their morphological sex is discovered to be different from their visible gender. Depending on the context, for example, genital surgery might prevent trans women from being sentenced to male prisons where they would likely be sexually harassed and assaulted on a daily basis. Surgery can also remove barriers of exclusion from certain gender-specific spaces (e.g., locker rooms/bathrooms and bathhouses), social and medical services (e.g., shelters for homeless and/or battered women), or social events that privilege morphological sex over gender presentation as the definitive criterion for access. Some trans people are also hesitant to pursue romantic and sexual relationships, as the prospect of explaining their body's fleshly difference to potential lovers can bring up feelings of shame and fear of rejection. Surgery helps minimize some of these anxieties and opens up opportunities of romantic and social bonding for trans people.

While sex reassignment surgery can function as a vehicle of trans agency, it can also be deployed to police nonnormative trans bodies that transgress and challenge gender and sexual normativity. This is most evident in social policies requiring sex reassignment surgery for a legal change of sex on identification documents, for example, or bureaucratic rules making sterilization mandatory for gender transitioning. A biopolitical analysis emphasizes how these mandates are part of a larger administrative apparatus of managing bodies and their productive and reproductive capacities for state interests. Pregnant men, men with breasts, and females with penises all unhinge the sex/gender binary and heterosexuality as socially engineered contrivances, while bureaucracies are erected to reel these transgressive bodies back in for biopolitical management. Despite the attempt at containing trans bodies, many people still find ways (depending on their economic and political situation) to circumvent the system and exercise some modicum of control of their transition trajectory.