Transsexuality and Rigid Boxes

During the first week of the semester, we discussed and critiqued Joan Scott’s  article, categories of analysis, and the gender binary between male and female. It is very fitting that in our second to last week—our last monograph—we discuss how the manipulation and change of sex separates from gender; the divergence shows that transsexuality and scientific change alter our understandings of how sex and gender work or do not work together congruently.

In Joanne J. Meyerowitz’s How Sex Change: A History of Transsexuality in the United States, the perception of sex and gender in the post-World War II years comes under scrutiny. Specifically, in How Sex Changed, Meyerowitz opens with an anecdote that demonstrates how sexual transition happened and how Americans perceived it following World War II. Christine Jorgensen, who served as a G.I., openly transitioned from male to female. A media frenzy ensued which popularized Jorgensen’s story—and Jorgensen embraces a public persona—making her sex transition national news. Not only this but as the news focused on the transition Americans openly learned more about the various aspects of sex that move beyond the anatomical understandings of the human body. 

On page 3 of Meyerowitz’s introduction, she explains the various features of sex. Just like historical source materials, a multi-teared system delineated the various features that explained sex:

Genitals and gonads
Breasts, beards, and other physical features that usually appeared after puberty
Erotic drives
Traits, mannerisms, and even occupations and clothes
Anatomical Sex
The sex of the body
Functional Sex
How men and women thought and behaved

As I read through the book I kept thinking of these features that many Americans separated to explain the different levels of sex. These are various categories that help explain various perceived issues and the much broader binary of male and female. The multiple categories demonstrate that many Americans adhered to the strict gender binary and looked for ways to separate by sex, gender, and behavior. 

Meyerowitz’s book, however, breaks out of the formed box. How transsexuality transformed America’s understanding of sex is a powerful way to move beyond categories of analysis and strict, rigid boxes. Transsexual individuals expanded outside of these boundaries. However, transsexuals and scholars of transsexuality formed new categories of analysis. “That sex, gender, and sexuality,” says Meyerowitz, “represent analytically distinct categories, that the sex of the body does not determine either gender or sexual identity, that doctors can alter characteristics of bodily sex” (284). 

 If we look at this book through the lens of Elizabeth Reis’s article, “Impossible Hermaphrodites,” we see that there is quite a difference from those adhering to the sex for which they were born. Reis states, “Those living with ambiguous bodies generally shared the binary ideal and sought to blend in, if only because survival demanded it”—this most definitely parallels with Judith Butler’s idea of gender performativity. Reis continues, “Forced to choose a sex, however, they did not always adhere to the sex they chose” (414). Therefore gender and sex are two completely different things and ideas. They don’t fit perfectly into the gender binary and follow more of what Jeanne Boydston asks us: whether a male/female distinction is important in social relationships in this place and time” (Boydston, 578). 

The fluidity of gender and sexuality weaves in and out of the American social and cultural fabric. Male and female are not two distinct things or beings, but rather participate in a larger framework of gender and sexuality in a society. Meyerowitz’s book shows us that transsexuality changed and transformed boundaries when it comes to understanding the differences in gender or the movement between different sexes. Scientific and medical changes to a human body, transitioning that person from male to female (or vice versa) reinforces a new study of gender and sexuality. 

Meyerowitz shows us gender and sexuality are not two congruent things. Though this story seems to focus on the male to female transition, not of female to male—one critique many reviewers noted—it is a fascinating story of how perceptions of sex changed through transsexuality in the United States.

2 Replies to “Transsexuality and Rigid Boxes”

  1. John, loved reading your eloquent posts all semester, including this one. I liked your connection to Joan Scott and it helped me connect Meyeorowitz’s work to the other broader themes we’ve been discussing throughout class. It’s eye-opening to look at Joan Scott’s work with transgender and intersex people at the focus, as well. Looking forward to class tomorrow!

  2. Hi John, I’ve enjoyed your posts all semester. Joan Scott’s understanding of gender features predominantly in how Meyerowitz creates categories and understandings of how gender operates for trans individuals.

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