Phenomenological and essentialist approaches in trans studies

     In the recent years there have been a small group of academics who have broken from the common practice of utilizing the tools of queer discourse to theorize about transsexual communities and individuals; rather these rogue academics have been critical of queer appropriations of the transsexual through theory and activism. Consequently, the appropriation of the transsexual community within the queer discourse has resulted in the marginalization of certain individuals of the community, namely those who pursue a heterosexual lifestyle post-transition, those who wish to undergo surgical modifications of their bodies to conform to heteronormative ideal of the genital labeling of sex, and individuals who essentialize their gender identity. 1 Transsexuals have been criticized in both queer and feminist circles for not subverting the patriarchal gender system, but rather re-configuring themselves (apparently) seamlessly into the dominant society.2 Only in the 1990s did the first works of trans studies by trans identified individuals appear, such as Sandy Stone’s “The “Empire” Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto”. Such texts were accepted into the library of queer and feminist theories only because they appropriated the transsexual into what Henry S. Rubin calls the “terms of absence”.3 These ideas, used in queer theory to explain the transsexual phenomenon, deny the possibility of allowing for trans subjectivity.4 The problem with these academic accounts of transsexuality is that they lack any real understanding of the everyday life of the transsexual; whereas the academic is focused on solely the identification of the individual, the transsexual is concerned not only of identity but also the corporeal reality of his or her own body.5, 6 A new methodology such as phenomenology is necessary to understand the self-account of the transsexual, to be able to incorporate the essentialist view on gender identity without demeaning it as misguided, but rather to view it as containing a certain agency within the heteronormative discourse.


     Phenomenology in its broadest sense is an attempt to understand truth via phenomenon, to describe it as it appears to the consciousness of the observer. This has led to many critiques of the methodology, namely the subjectivity of the “I” which experiences. Another critique leveled at phenomenology, stemming from the previous allegation, is the reliance upon the Cartesian cogito. In its defense, phenomenology resists subjective fallacy by pointing out that all objectivity is situated within a subjective lens, objectivity is only possible as viewed or experienced by a subject, which by in turn acknowledges the subject’s experience of the object. With its reliance of a subjective consciousness, phenomenology always in tension with Descartes, one must either radicalize the cogito or seek to overcome it. Martin Heidegger, critical of Edmund Husserl’s linking to Descartes, inaugurated a new form of phenomenology. Heidegger claimed that phenomenology must be attentive to the historicity and temporality of the finite existence of human experience (Dasein); secondly, that all forms of description involved interpretation;7 and thirdly, that phenomenology was the way to raise the question of Being.8 Heidegger’s reconfiguration of phenomenology takes into of the Foucaudian concept of how discourse shapes a subject and how it may speak, Dasein can only be understood within its own temporality and historicity. In his article, “Phenomenology as Method in Trans Studies”, Henry S. Rubin utilizes two French phenomenologists, Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, to further his argument of using phenomenology to understand transsexual experience.9

     Rubin begins his article with a quotation from Michel Foucault, explaining why he rejects phenomenological approach to understanding subjects which in his opinion, “gives absolute priority to the observing object”.10 The speaking subject is often undermined in Foucault’s discursive methods, while phenomenology attempts show agency of a subject’s consciousness within discourse. For many transsexuals, their gender identity is an essential fact for them, for them it is not a matter of transitioning into a new gender rather it is transitioning the body to conform to an identity that was and is always already the same. When a transsexual utters, “I never felt like a man” or “I never felt like a woman”, what is created is an ahistorical gender identity. This is problematic within discursive analysis, as posits one’s identity outside the historical discourses that shapes it, what is created is an a priori identity. In other words, what is being said is, “My gender identity is and always was ___, it was not society that made me feel otherwise”. Phenomenology allows us to work with these statements made by non-queer transsexuals and not see them as mere mirroring of an essential heteronormative fiction of gender. Given the subjective consciousness in phenomenology, essences are not seen as objective but rather malleable,11 essences that can be described can be interpreted by the subject. This allows the speaking subject to create new meanings toward the heteronormative gender identity, it imbues into male and female a possibility to include individuals not born into the identity.

     Satre’s phenomenology is based upon his three levels bodily ontology, the body-for-itself, the body-for-others and the alienated body. The body-for-itself is the point of view that one can never get out, it is the consciousness that one experiences from the world, an object that is lived, not known; the body-for-others is the body as flesh, the body that others can see; and the alienated body is when the I is forced to take the viewpoint of the Other upon its own body.12 Given these three levels of bodily ontology, there is a dissonance that occurs within the transsexual, The body-for-others does not match the alienated body which in turn causes the body-for-others be the site where changes are necessary. From this vantage point, transsexuals which adhere to an essentialist idea of their identity can be seen as active agents against heteronormative discourse. This is seen by their outright rejection of the body-for-others as reality, but rather forcing upon others to view their bodies as the body-for-itself. This phenomenological method allows trans subjectivity to be seen as agency, rather than as individuals who merely reiterate the patriarchal gender system. Thus transsexuals that insist on always already being a heterosexual female (MTF) or male (FTM), are given agency as seen by resisting heteronormative assumptions of the relationships between the body, gender and identity. Rubin puts this eloquently in his article, “We transsexuals are agents who actively become the selves that we have always been to ourselves by refusing and resignifying the categories given to us by discourse”.13

     In her Posttranssexual Manifesto, Stone concludes by declaring “the genre of visible transsexuals must grow by recruiting members from the class of invisible ones, from those who have disappeared into their ‘plausible histories’… Passing means the denial of mixture. One and the same with passing is effacement of the prior gender role, or the construction of a plausible history”.14 Stone, in the fashion of queer theorists, condemns transsexuals choose to become “invisible” and who continue to “pass”, as if the burden of dismantling the heteronormative gender framework is to fall naturally upon transsexuals. To Stone, invisible transsexuals are seen as passive subjects who work to continue the continued dominance of the patriarchal society. She assumes that transsexuals who remains invisible or pass do so by choice, not considering the ramifications of class and race, and how they might dictate the choices that one makes. She does not take into account who is able to have the freedom to be a visible transsexual. A white male-to-female transsexual (like Stone) has more freedom to pursue the posttranssexual manifesto, than an Asian from male-to-female transsexual (like myself), who must take into account how she would affect the face of her entire family if she chose to be a visible transsexual. Phenomenology allows those transsexuals who cannot become visible transsexuals, by choice or necessity, not to be seen as merely passive subjects, but still active agents in reshaping a new gender order.


     Recent development into gene research have indicated that “genes involved in brain sexual differntiation, making the brain either male or female, that were active completely independently from hormones”.15 The fact that WNT4 and DAX1 function as gene markers of female sex development – contrary to the popular notion of the SRY gene or the Y chromosome as the sex determinant gene – allows new discussion to talk about the possibilty of a biological gender identity. What such findings would indicate would be the development of the “brain sexual differentiation” before hormonal influence, as it is the wash of horomonal activity that stimulates the devlopment of the fetus’s genitilia (or lack thereof). If such is the case that the brain develops its own sex (not gender) identity with total disregard of its hormone induced sexed body, for one to claim “never have been female” or “never have been male” is in fact true in the psychical sense, even if the lived experience through the flesh begs the differ. Perhaps it is not gender identity disorder at all, but rather a disorder of the body, after all it is the brain the develops before the body. However, there is a risk of running the argument too far, to say that it is proven as “genetics” or “nature” rather than nurture. Even if one claims to have never been a certain gender, the mind is not the only part of the human that experiences life, the body and how others react to it produce new meanings and understanding for an individual. Furthermore, to believe transsexuality is genetically based is to run the risk of delimiting its identification and criteria. If one can be proven not to meet the medical definition of what could possibly be classified as transsexuality, one would be hard-pressed to find a way to transition; transsexuals would then become an exclusionary term.


     Since the inception of the queer theory there has been a heavy push for individuals in the transsexual community to spear head the movement of reconfiguring or breaking down the gender binary system. This has alienated a portion of transsexuals within the community, as many do not speak the queer lexicon of subverting gender or necessarily identify with the notion gender fluidity. Transsexuals, unlike transgenders, are concerned about the body, it is not so much as a “gender identity disorder” or subverting gender order, as they are with making their body-for-others conform to their body-for-self.

     Rubin notes that when asking “What was it like being a woman?” to a FTM, many cannot provide an answer, “this inability rests on knowledge of and resistance to hegemonic assumptions about the relationship between bodies and identities”.16 Such essentialist views on gender identity by transsexuals should not be mistaken as simple compliance to current gender order, but a subtle reconfiguration that rewrites what can be considered man and woman, declares what is biologically written upon the body cannot determine the truth of one’s self.

Works Cited

Lehrman, Sally. “When a Person is Neither XX or XY: A Q&A with Geneticist Eric Vilain.” Scientific American. May 30, 2007. Feb 1 2008. .

Moran, Dermot. Introduction to Phenomenology. London: Routledge, 2000.

Namaste, Viviane. “Addressing the Politics of Social Erasure: Making the Lives of Transsexual People Visible – An Interview With Viviane Namaste.” New Socialist Magazine. Issue 39. December 2002-January 2003. 25 Nov 2007. <>.

Rubin, Henry S. “Phenomenology as Method in Trans Studies.” GLQ 4.2 (1998): 263-281.

Rubin, Henry S. “Trans Studies: Between a Metaphysics of Presence and Absence.” Reclaiming Genders: Transsexuals Grammars at the Fin de Siècle. Eds. More, Kate and Stephen Whittle. London: Cassell, 1999. 173-192.

Stone, Sandy. “The “Empire” Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto.” 1994. .

1. Rubin, Henry S. “Trans Studies: Between a Metaphysics of Presence and Absence.” Reclaiming Genders: Transsexuals Grammars at the Fin de Siècle. Eds. More, Kate and Stephen Whittle. London: Cassell, 1999. 173-192. 189.
2. Stone, Sandy. “The “Empire” Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto.” 1994. .
3. Rubin. “Trans Studies.” 188.
4. Ibid 178.
5. Namaste, Viviane. “Addressing the Politics of Social Erasure: Making the Lives of Transsexual People Visible – An Interview With Viviane Namaste.” New Socialist Magazine. Issue 39. December 2002-January 2003. 25 Nov 2007. <>.
6. Certain transsexuals have started distancing from the term transgender, which originated from the queer community. It was used as identification for individuals who lied outside the gender binary system, and also contained the political motive of subverting the binary system. Some transsexuals are not particularly concerned about disrupting the binary system, bur rather reconfiguring their body to match their gender identity; a gender identity which may or may not lie outside the boundaries of male and female. See Namaste. note 5.
7. This was addressed toward the Husserlian project of pure description. Heidegger critiques this idea, as pure description is not possible as it is always influenced by interpretation. As the consciousness is always already influenced by the interpretation of what lies exterior to it.
8. Moran, Dermot. Introduction to Phenomenology. London: Routledge, 2000.20-21.
9. Rubin, Henry S. “Phenomenology as Method in Trans Studies.” GLQ 4.2 (1998): 263-281.
10. Ibid 263. from Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things.
11. Ibid 267.
12. Ibid 268-269.
13. Ibid 278.
14. Stone see note 2.
15. Lehrman, Sally. “When a Person is Neither XX or XY: A Q&A with Geneticist Eric Vilain.” Scientific American. May 30, 2007. Feb 1 2008. .
16. Rubin. “Phenomenology.” 277. see note 9.

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