Overcoming Gender? Transsexualism and the Gender Paradigm

Davis, Erin Calhoun, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia
Hayes, Sharon, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia

In this dissertation I examine transsexual individuals' lives and experiences in order to understand the regulatory practices of gender and the implications of gender diverse lives. I explore how trans people interpret and present their gender identities, the social constraints on such interpretations and presentations, and the implications of such identities on cultural conceptions of gender. First, I examine transsexual individuals' narrative framing of gender and transsexuality. I investigate the ways in which these narratives both reflect and depart from academic and popular narratives as well as the extent to which essentialist narratives serve to authenticate and legitimate transsexual lives. Next, I explore transsexuals' image management, including the tensions of being authentically gendered and the public negotiation of gender claims. I examine the extent to which the desire to be recognized as authentically gendered structures public gender performances. I also address the implications of "passing" terminology for transsexuals' claims of gender authenticity. Finally, I investigate the reception of gender diversity. By examining the process by which partners of transsexuals assign meaning to gender presentations and identities, I explore how intimate (as opposed to public) gender performances are structured and interpreted. Ultimately, my goal in this dissertation is to provide insight into the larger contemporary social meaning and regulation of gender. What is revealed through this analysis is that the postmodern positioning of transsexuality as disrupting gender regulations, transcending gender boundaries, and revealing the artificiality of gender identification tends to overlook transsexual individuals subjective experiences of gender realness. This stance also ignores the extent to which gender diversity is constrained in public interactions and managed in interpersonal interaction. However, the acceptance of transsexual individuals as authentic men and women among partners and in more personal interactions does create room for the negotiation of gender boundaries. The pressures on individuals to publicly act and appear gender normative in order to be authentic reveals the continued salience of dichotomous gender identities and the regulation of gender normality. However, while the biologically based dualistic gender structure is publicly reiterated, the boundaries and the criteria for inclusion are being renegotiated in interpersonal interactions.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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