A Tale of Two Trans Women (Part 4): Discourse

“What can be meant by ‘identity,’ then, and what grounds the presumption that identities are self-identical, persisting through time as the same, unified and internally coherent? More importantly, how do these assumptions inform the discourses on ‘gender identity’?…[T]he ‘coherence’ and ‘continuity’ of ‘the person’ are not logical or analytic features of personhood, but, rather, socially instituted and maintained norms of intelligibility.” –Judith Butler

When Katy was 22, she discovered what it really meant to be transgender. Not only that, she found the lived experiences of transgender people disturbingly relatable. As a consequence, she came to terms with the fact that she was a transgender woman and began her transition. The first couple of years of her transition were difficult–she lost her job, her friends, and the relationships she once had with several of her closest family. She came to find that people often didn’t take her seriously, some straight men wouldn’t even look her in the eye, and she needed to be extra cautious in public spaces.

According to Butler, Katy’s transition altered her social position. Though she was never truly a part of the dominant culture, her transition made her lack of fit within it more obvious to others. In other words, though she was always marginalized, the sense in which she was marginalized changed and this change was due to discourses on gender.

A discourse is a body of knowledge and social practices that dictate how we think of and talk about the world (or some part of it). Stated differently, discourse determines what narratives we adopt, the language-games we play and the shape that our schemes take. According to Katy’s culture, people are (supposed to be) either masculine, heterosexual men or feminine, heterosexual women. Whoever deviates from the norm is considered less human as their existence is difficult for those who fit within the dominant culture to understand. This lack of understanding often stirs a kind of dread in the people Katy encounters because her existence challenges their own identity–the narratives they have come to adopt from their culture.

In order to deal with this dread while maintaining the discourses that have informed their worldview, many in the dominant culture come to perceive Katy as a mentally ill man in a dress, a sexual deviant, less than human. This narrative is reinforced and repeated in media, in the language we use, and in our practices.

The important point that Butler makes is that there is no person or position outside of culture, or the discourses that constitute their being. Therefore, no one is exempt from having to participate in discourses–including those on gender. The only choice we have is whether or not we affirm or subvert.


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