Doing (trans)gender with words
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The strategic employment of language in small, sexually intimate communities of practice -what transgender studies scholar C. Jacob Hale terms “cultures of two” -can serve as a practice of resistance against dominant biologically deterministic ideologies and a source of support within hegemonic constructions of public and private that silence and invisiblize non-normative identities. Following this assertion and exploring the ways that transgender people speak and write about trans bodies on their own terms, this thesis draws upon J.L. Austin’s theory of performative language, Charles Taylor’s idea that language is constitutive, and Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity to argue that the language that transgender people use for their bodies and sexual practices is both performative and constitutive of gender. In order to emphasize multiple transgender people’s voices across media, this thesis uses performance analysis to examine discursive and embodied representations of gender both in in-depth interviews that the author conducted and selections from Tristan Taormino’s anthology of trans and genderqueer erotica titled Take Me There. In Chapter Two, I draw upon José Esteban Muñoz’s concept of a “queer utopia” and Avery Gordon’s idea of “haunting,” to consider how both the interviewees and the anthology represent language as something that can affirm, but which also puts people in a place of vulnerability or exposes them to potential trauma. Then, using Stuart Hall’s writing on representation and audience and Michael Warner’s theories of publics and counterpublics, I analyze how the intended audiences for both the interviews and Take Me There affect their portrayals of intimate conversations about sex. Finally, I employ Don Kulick’s idea that gendered language is a resource available to everyone as a frame for my interviewee’s thoughts on language’s potential for affirmation. Chapter Three considers how language can facilitate the recognition of transgender identities as real. First, I articulate how my understanding of recognition has been shaped by Althusser, Butler, and Hale. Then, I consider how the audience of a transgender person’s “gender performance” affects their feeling that they have been recognized: How does “seeing” and “being seen” work in what Hale terms “cultures of two”? How does it work in more public interactions? Finally, I argue that language is doing more than performing and constituting gender identity for those who engage with it: it is also creating and pointing to people who care about how the language that they use affects those they use it with. Following Taylor and Austin’s theories of constitutive and performative language, and emerging into the theoretical gap that Kulick illuminates, my thesis considers the ways in which language can be employed to either restrict or expand transgender people’s abilities to author their own gender identities within, alongside, and in opposition to the binary sex/gender system. In the United States, a country that insistently and brutally enforces discrimination and violence against transgender people, based in an ideology that presumes them to be either ill, deranged, or mistaken, it is vital that transgender people’s own conceptions of self, especially as they manifest relationally in intimate (read vulnerable) sexual situations, be considered with respect.