Saturday, April 21, 2012

It's Just a Word: Transvestite, Transsexual, & Transgender

My first dissertation chair, Glenda Russell, loved words. She also loved challenging our use of words. It wasn't black ice--as our culture frequently equates black with bad and white with positive--it was invisible ice. We don't skirt around issues either, as making reference to a skirt calls upon society's perceptions of women.  These conversations we had in her office some ten odd years ago came to mind this morning while I was reading my Twitter feed.

This is exactly the nuanced and thoughtful awareness that Glenda taught me to pay attention to in her office. Words matter--our choices in words represent complicated concepts and in turn, create our mutual understandings of the world around us.

Well now that's interesting. Maybe not to the casual reader, but the use of the word transvestite is very interesting to me. I had a great Twitter conversation with Steve Silberman about the use of language.

Magnus Hirschfeld
Transvestite, first coined by Magnus Hirschfeld in the early 1900s, the term was used to describe people who consistently dressed in clothing consistent with what those of the opposite sex wore. Transvestites would be male or female, with same-sex attractions or different-sex attractions, or no interest in sex at all. The word has evolved and now most frequently is associated with a mental illness. The current incarnation of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association lists Transvestic Fetishism as a mental illness. The official symptoms are:

over a period of at least six months, in a heterosexual male, recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving cross-dressing. The fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
So the official word is that straight men who get turned on by wearing women's clothes have a mental illness. Gay men who get turned on by women's clothes are perfectly normal, as are, apparently, women who wear pants. Sound a little ridiculous to you? It does to me.

So let's go back to the Discovery News article that Steve posted. What Chevalier D'Eon, pictured on the left, suffering from transvestic fetishism? Did he have a mental illness?

The answer depends on how you contextualize his experience (and, how Chevalier described his own experience). Chevalier died in 1810. The word transvestite had not yet been created and the DSM hadn't been dreamed up. Could he have been suffering from conditions that were not yet invented? Are mental illnesses--or conditions--timeless? Have they always existed? Do they exist only within the context of our culture and society?

We are prone to making terrible errors when thinking about history. We project our modern understandings of phenomena into the past. Yes, the phenomena of some men being turned on by wearing clothes associated with the opposite sex is likely a phenomena that has existed since we first started wearing clothes that identify differences in sex. This does not, however, mean that the meanings associated with the behavior are consistent through history. Context matters. Context changes--and so does our understandings of the same phenomena when we add the variable of time.

The article went on:
Here's how D'Eon's transvestitism came to pass: He joined King Louis XV's secret service in 1755, had his first major military posting in London in 1763... However, within months, he had a falling-out with the ambassador appointed to replace him in London, accusing the ambassador of trying to murder him. D'Eon also made public secret documents and ended up being sent to prison, which he escaped. Once escaped, D'Eon concealed his identity, reportedly, by dressing as a woman... And after that, apparently D'Eon was forced to adopt female dress, and others accepted him as a female. 
Whoops. Wait a minute. The current understanding of transvestism is that it is a mental illness that occurs in heterosexual men that are sexually turned on by wearing clothes that are considered female. The discovery article makes no mention of any of the relevant criteria for the so-called mental illness. D'Eon's transvestism, as described, is behavior used to avoid being detected by authorities and/or adversaries.

This is a totally different phenomena than is captured by the phrase transvestism.

What was D'Eon really thinking and experiencing? The Wikipedia page offers this tantalizing bit of information:
D'Eon claimed to be physically not a man, but a woman, and demanded recognition by the government as such. King Louis XVI and his court complied, but demanded that d'Eon dress appropriately and wear women's clothing.
This would make it more likely that in modern times, D'Eon would have identified as transgender. As with transvestism, I think it's important to look at how our description of this phenomena developed. Magnus Hirschfeld, who coined the term transvestite, also supervised the first known sex-confirmation surgery. The term transsexual didn't come into use until 1949 when David Oliver Cauldwell first used it. It wasn't until the 1970s and 80s that the terms gender identity disorder and later transgender came into use.

D'Eon would have never considered himself as a transvestite, as transsexual, as someone with gender identity disorder, or transgender. These terms did not exist to describe phenomena. Our shared history and way of viewing the world had not yet evolved and grown to a place where these terms had come into existence. We thought of ourselves very differently in the 1700s--our sense of self--and our ways of know ourselves--was embedded in the language of that time.

So how do with think of D'Eon? Maybe he (or she, as some references suggestion D'Eon referred to self as she) left behind journals or other writings. Maybe their are some historical documents that describe how D'Eon moved through the world, how D'Eon represented his/her self to others. Maybe these documents don't exist.

What I do know is that it makes no sense to transport ourselves back to the 1700s with 2012 ways of knowing and think we can understand how people experienced the world. If we take our current world-view and use it to understand the past, we really are just developing an understanding of the past as we would think of it if we time traveled. It is an ethnocentric way of understanding history, and is a tool that isn't particularly helpful. We cannot judge a culture (or individual experience) from another era by our own standards and ways of knowing.

To understand the past as it was, we need to know how people of the time thought of their experience.

Back to D'Eon and my conversation with Steve.

I had no idea who D'Eon was when I had this conversation with Steve. Now that I know, I think this still wouldn't be the right way to think about D'Eon. It's unclear what D'Eon thought about his/her sex or gender. We can only project into the past (he/she lived and dressed like a woman, so he/she must have thought we was a woman--or female). No matter how we think of D'Eon, our thoughts will be embedded in our modern culture and our modern way of thinking. Absent first person narrative, there isn't a way to represent D'Eon in a way that is grounded in D'Eon's own phenomenology.

That for me is the exciting part of history--learning about my own phenomenology and trying to decode how someone in any particular historical era might have understood something from their own phenomenological viewpoint. What do you think?

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