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Gay, queer, trans – politics and theories in motion

This text suggests what a queer theoretical understanding of transgender might look like in the context of the emergence of gay, queer and trans research in Norway.

By Agnes Bolsø, Professor at the Centre for Gender Research, Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture, NTNU (translated by Reinert Skumsnes).
This text was first published in 2019.

In 2001, Scandinavian University Press (Universitetsforlaget) published the book Norsk homoforskning (Brantsæter The introduction states that before the 1970s, research was ‘largely characterized by ignorance and prejudice’ and that scientists were busy mapping sexual perversities, ‘regarding homosexuality as illness, deviance or misdevelopment’ (Brantsæter ibid: 9). Young scholars, in the beginning mostly graduate students in the social sciences and the humanities, ended that tradition. In the last chapter of the anthology Turid Eikvam provides an overview of this research, decade by decade. She shows how Norwegian gay and lesbian studies based on 'gay identity and social life' was part of an emerging international research field; Gay and Lesbian Studies (Eikvam ibid: 411). Many of the researchers had a background from gay activist movements, and many were inspired by Women's Studies. The theoretical developments in Gay and Lesbian Studies run in tandem with those in Women’s Studies.

In 2001, when Norsk homoforskning was published, fierce debates about 'gay identity' were taking place among researchers and activists, and Judith Butler and Queer Theory had become a theoretical conundrum for early gay and lesbian research. Scholars with queer perspectives posed the question: What do gay people actually have in common? Our gay identity and social life? No, since we are divided by class, race and even the character of our queer desires. Correspondingly, Women's Studies was also challenged by Judith Butler's work Gender Trouble (1990). In the wake of Gender Trouble, the stability of the concept ‘woman’ became challenged. In the book Norsk homoforskning, gay and lesbian identities are in general seen as something distinct and stable, but there are examples of texts where the significance of culture in shaping identities is emphasized.

I gave several lectures and talks for young activists in the early 2000s. They were now increasingly calling themselves 'skeive', which became the Norwegian translation of 'queer'.

Bildet kan inneholde: Plakat, Tegnefilm, Skjønnlitteratur, Fiktiv karakter, Illustrasjon.Status today

Norwegian gay research and activism have been successful, but the victory for queer people is not won once and for all. The democratization process must be maintained and pushed further, on behalf of those who love and desire people of the same sex as themselves. However, the debate between people influenced by queer theory and those who think more traditionally about gay and lesbian identities, is in many ways resolved. There are at present hardly any new arguments or heated conflicts over queer versus gay and lesbian rights perspectives, and sexual politics is characterized by a pragmatic approach: sometimes it is politically apt to apply a notion of stable homosexual identity, but at some crossroads a less fixed understanding of sexual desire seems appropriate in the battle for legitimate variety in sexual practices.

Read the article Identitet og homopolitikk etter queer [Identity and gay politics after queer].

It is not the gays, but transgender people who carry the greatest burdens of being queer in Norway today. Gender and gender identity have become the pivotal point, not sex, or who one desires and loves. Within trans research and activism we see the same discussions that Eikvam describes in 2001; Is trans a stable identity, perhaps even a biological condition and thereby inborn, or are trans identities primarily related to what is culturally possible?

The idea that a person's trans identity is firmly rooted in a form of physical and psychological authenticity and sincerity has given rise to a trans political rights struggle with support in trans research. In Norway and internationally there are many research projects which fall into this category. Activism and research are particularly concerned with legal and health policy issues. Research based on queer theory is not positioned against this. However, a queer theoretical point of departure tends to give rise to different issues and debates. In what follows I explain what a queer theoretical understanding of transgender could look like. I argue in a way that normalizes and makes common the bodies of trans people. The line of reasoning is similar to the logic behind the statement ‘most people are queer’, which also is a title of a book (Folk flest er skeive 2010).

Some definitions

When sex assigned at birth corresponds with an individual’s current experience of oneself as gendered, it is here called ‘cis’ gender. Transgender is when this binary correspondence is different in one way or the other. Transgender breaks with the traditional woman-man division in various ways.

No one understands their own body exactly as it is

We imagine our body different from how it is.  We may think we are too thick or too thin, that our nose is ugly, that we have too much belly fat, that our tits are pathetically small, the penis too little and lips too thin or too thick - when our bodies are perfectly fine, really. No one understands their body in complete correspondence with the materiality of the body. Today, many beauty and fitness industry agents are making big money on discrepancies in our self-images. I presuppose a distinction between the material body (the body that can be manipulated) on the one hand, and the fantasies and thoughts we have about our bodies on the other. There is no reason to distinguish between cis and trans bodies regarding this. No one understands their own body exactly as it is, and all bodies are manipulable. Also, everyone can change the way they think about their own body, and not only can we do it, we must, and should since our bodies undergo major natural changes in the course of life from infancy to old age.

Gender as performative

I combine this understanding of the body with Judith Butler's (1990) idea of gender as performative. The theory of gender as performative goes roughly as follows: we may get the impression that humans are divided in two genders, as we strive for and repeat two separate expressions of gender, male and female. It is as if we live up to an original binary division of gender. But there is no original, says Butler. We are busy copying the copy. This process goes on and on, producing people who seemingly are of two different genders, and not only that: this concern not only the social expression of gender. In fact, this process imprints in us that there biologically are only two variants – man and woman. This is the making of ontological difference: we simply cannot see an individual as a human being unless this individual can be categorized one or the other: To be human is to be man or woman. In an interview Butler sums it up: "So if you want the ontology of this, I guess performativity is the vehicle through which ontological effects are established. Performativity is the discursive mode by which ontological effects are installed. Something like that" (Butler et al 1994, 33). For some, this rigid two-sexed model is a complete nightmare, for example for the female middle-distance runner Caster Semenya. She identifies as woman but is pathologized by the legal system of international sport.

The world famous Semenya is not the only one to be affected by this. We live in a society where the trans body is perceived completely different from the cis body (cf. 'born in the wrong body' and 'gender dysphoric'). But if we now combine the two theoretical positions above - distinguishing between the material body and certain ideas that we might have about this body + that cis bodies represent specific ideas about the body (since there is no natural original to free it from representing ideas) - we must realize that all bodies are equally wrong or right.

Cis-normativity relies on “(..) a disjunction between the «felt sense» of the body and the body’s corporeal contours” (Salamon 2010:2). The very same disjunction applies to transgendered bodies. In neither case is it necessarily pathological. Transgender and cis people both experience a potentially troubled relationship between the body itself and the way they think about their bodies. From this we can derive that also cis people, who feel like they belong to the gender stated on their birth certificate, need to live up to the ideas about their gendered bodies.

A queer theoretical understanding of transgender

The dichotomy 'masculinity-femininity' is obviously important in the trans field; in the health care system, to those who change gender expression and to those seeking medical treatment. The people involved negotiate bodily changes in masculinizing and/or feminizing direction.

With Judith Butler and queer theory, I understand masculinity and femininity to be symbolic entities. It implies that individuals of all genders e.g. can present themselves with phallic symbols. It also means that the penis is seen as any other body part. It can be flaccid, impotent or injured, while the symbolic phallus is always erect, never injured or impotent. An example may be needed here: We know little about Arnold Schwarzenegger's penis. It can be the size of a peanut for all we know. We know a lot about the symbolic masculinity he masters: it is fierce. With masculinity understood as phallic, femininity becomes that which confirms that the one who has the phallus actually has it. A penis is obviously not necessary in order to be understood as a man. A war veteran who has had his penis and testicles ripped off in a bomb attack is still perceived as a man, although he might experience major challenges in terms of masculine self-esteem. Hence, it is possible to understand this body part as pure matter. It says little about the gendered aura that surrounds the person who’s body it is attached to. A man with a clitoris or a penis the size of a peanut, may come across as the master of the universe.

Read the debate Kjønnsforskerne tier, men forsker på transkjønn. [Gender researchers are silent, but do research on transgender].

Camp as a starting point

I will say more about the distinction between the actual body and fantasies about the body, by using the concept 'camp'. Camp can be a satirical commentary to gender conventions, as sometimes demonstrated in drag performances. Camp is at its most iconic when masculine and feminine conventions are erased (Brostoff 2017). This was central to Judith Butler's theory of gender as performative. The camp-inspired drag artist does not imitate a primal and original gender, but reveals to Butler, the repetitive character of gender. It is in the repetitions that our idea about two original forms of gender emerge. And it is with the ruptures, the failed repetitions, in camp, in the pathetic and satirical, the performative character of gender appears. With Butler, 'camp' is the starting point for queer thinking, and camp becomes important both theoretically and politically. Butler's politicization of camp became an effective bridge between drag performance and liberatory politics. But it does not mean that gender is a performance, which has been a common misunderstanding since Butler’s book Gender Trouble in 1990.

Read Gender as Performance. An Interview with Judith Butler.

The burdens of queer politics are increasingly carried by trans people, as homosexuality has become widely accepted. Trans politics has to a large extent become identity politics for individuals who feel that they really are what they are expressing in terms of gender. It is what Melissa Brostoff calls a politics of trans sincerity, " in which the gender-nonconforming subject is celebrated as transgressive to the extent that her nonconformity can be read as serious—that is, to the extent that she rejects camp” (Brostoff 2017: 5).

This kind of trans sincerity appeared in Glasgow Pride 2015, when the trans community wanted to ban drag-queens from the parade. They worried that drag as performance could offend trans gender people. After some deliberations, they modified the ban to include only drag-queens who were also cis-gender, before the entire ban was lifted (Brostoff 2017). Camp performance was here understood as transphobic. Perhaps people who perceive of drag-queens in a Pride parade as an expression of transphobia, also think that an original combination of body, gender and self-understanding exists, that the drag-queens seem to be making fun of? However, if we follow the reasoning of queer theory, interpreting Butler, Salamon and Brostoff as I do here, such combinations do not exist, neither for cis nor transgendered people.

Everyone must constantly rethink their body

I once happened to hear the remark: "She's just a woman, and barely that!". The remark could have been aimed at anyone who identify as a woman and have a birth certificate to confirm it. The fear of falling outside the category we feel that we belong to; to come across as so unfeminine or for men so unmasculine that we barely belong, is what nurtures gender panic in society.

The body goes through changes, such as pregnancies, injuries, illness and aging, and new experiences enter the individual's gendered body history just by growing up. Cis-persons must also continuously rethink their body over their life-span. Cis people rework their understanding of their own bodies through mainstream cultural narratives about the body. We are offered gendered images that accompany the cis person as s/he ages: "lass", "lad", "mature woman", "a man in his prime", "the matriarch", "the old man" etc., categories that already are there to facilitate identity adjustments of cis people throughout life. It enables changes in identification as life evolves and physical and mental changes occur. Despite all that, cis people use technological and medical aids such as beauty surgeries, high heeled shoes, penis extenders, viagra, testosterone and estrogen. Cis people do endless amounts of gendered body work to make the body correspond to ideas they have about themselves.

Read the article Kroppen og fantasiene om den [The body and the fantasies about it]. Read also Vi må kjempe for å legitimere alle kjønnsuttrykk [We must fight to legitimize all gender expressions].

What about transgender people? Here we lack the flora of cultural figures listed above, images that can make intermediate positions, processes of change and transitions easier to deal with. Here, health authorities are ready to assist with guidance, therapy, medication and surgery. 

Cis people are not pathologized if they happen to experiment or make minor ‘mistakes’, playing gender loosely or on the edges of gender norms. Society is flexible, and smoothes out a lot of trouble for cis people. We need a politics of social and cultural long-term change for transgender people too. With queer theory, as outlined here, the health system is not the place for long-term trans politics either, even though access to testosterone, estrogen, and surgery can be life-savers for individuals. In the longer term, we must prevent the health services from guarding and fixing our gender expression, beyond helping us accept ourselves. Beyond this, the health services can make an important contribution by ensuring that we have an ongoing public conversation regarding gender. Healthcare workers can potentially help to create a greater variation of gendered figures with which one can identify. 

Published June 9, 2020 12:48 PM - Last modified Sep. 21, 2021 10:35 AM