Transgender identities: within and beyond the constraints of heteronormativity
This thesis explores how transgender identities are constructed and discursively produced in the socio-historical context of the early twenty-first century. In so doing, it addresses the relationship between experience and discourse. I examine the ways in which identities are embodied and articulated through an analysis of interviews with self-identified transgendered people. Chapter one outlines the key aims of this thesis, including situating myself as a researcher and how I came to be doing this. Chapter two explores the historical and cultural conditions within which sexed and gendered identities are constructed. Theoretical debates have mainly taken place on the essentialist/constructionist continuum which can usefully be understood as connoting a space between fixed identities and fluid social processes. Much has been written on what sex and gender are, and are not, and most of this work underplays the importance of the heterosexual matrix as the source of sex and gender categorisation. Chapter three describes how the phenomenological approach meets the challenges of engaging with the complexities of sexed and gendered identities in that it focuses on the lived experiences and voices of the eleven participants recruited for the study. I use a narrative approach which illustrates how stories are embedded in social and cultural discourses through which sexed and gendered identities are constructed. Chapter four outlines the personal dissonance experienced by transgendered people when their sexed and gendered identities are not congruent with the binary categories of the western heterosexual matrix. The participants’ stories illustrate that gender is something that is an internal phenomenological “felt” experience in their lives and incongruent with the external identity that society has assigned them. Chapter five illustrates how stories are grounded in cultural and historical discourses. In particular, the participants demonstrate how self esteem and mental health are central to their developing identities and how important it is for them to be in contact with a larger collective identity category. Chapter six and seven explore the two mutually reinforcing processes involved in transitioning — passing and self-identification. Chapter six explores the processes of emotional and physical changes entailed by the various choices transgendered people make about their self-identity and the ensuing action required. Chapter seven examines the process of self-identification, illustrating the hegemonic power of heteronormativity and its understanding of identity and desire. Chapter eight discusses the research findings in relation to heteronormativity. It shows how peoples’ understandings of their sexed and gendered identities challenge hegemonic binaries and their fixed assumptions about sexed, gendered and sexual identities. The participants’ stories show the tension between the limitations of categories that have been available for transgendered people and the lived experience of transgendered subjectivity within which the historical legacy of particular hegemonic categories remain potent. I argue that it is not enough to research into sexed and gendered identities without critically questioning the dominant influence of hegemonic heterosexuality in producing normative accounts of sex, gender and sexuality. The chapter concludes by pointing to how the category of “transgender” has the potential to expose and begin to move beyond the limited conceptual space of heterosexual discourse which depends on binary sexed and gender categories for exploring and understanding erotic relationships. The conclusions drawn from this research propose a commitment to engaging with queer theory as a way of blurring and expanding the definitions of sexed and gendered identities that are regulated by the heterosexual matrix.