This chapter is a case study of the emergence of two new transgendering identities in the age of the Internet, situated within the conceptual frameworks we have developed elsewhere for the sociological analysis of the full range of transgender diversity in contemporary Euro-American societies (Ekins 1997; Ekins and King 2001a, 2006). These conceptual frameworks were based, principally, on extensive life history work with several hundred Euro-American transgender informants and ethnographic work with several thousands of transpeople worldwide, since the mid-1970s, as guided by the methodology of grounded theory. Grounded theorists follow the research strategy of ‘theoretical sampling’. Informants and research sites are sampled on the basis of developing theory. Emerging data is analysed using the ‘constant comparative method’ (Glaser and Strauss 1967; Glaser 1978).
Ekins (1993, 1997) considered ‘male femaling’ identities in terms of their emergence within three sets of interrelations: those of sex (the body), sexuality, and gender; those of self, identity and social world; and those of ‘scientific’ (expert), ‘member’ and ‘common sense’ (lay) formulations of transgendering phenomena. He set forth an ideal-typical career path within which a range of male femaling identities emerged from ‘beginning’, through ‘fantasying’, ‘doing’, ‘constituting’, and ‘consolidating’.
Ekins (1997) did not consider ‘female maling’; neither did he give due weight to the (then) recent emergence of ‘transcending’ gender identities. In particular, in relation to this chapter, Ekins (1997) only touched upon ‘demaling’ and ‘ungendering’ trans identities. We addressed these various omissions in Ekins and King (2001a) and more fully in Ekins and King (2006). In that book, we argued that all transgender identities emerge within one of four modes of transgendering: those of ‘migrating’, ‘oscillating’, ‘negating’, and ‘transcending’. We identified five principal sub-processes variously operative within each mode: those of ‘erasing’, ‘substituting’, ‘concealing’, ‘implying’ and ‘redefining’. Where the privileged sub-process is ‘substituting’, we are likely to be evidencing the ‘migrating’ mode, as with the ‘transsexual’ who migrates across the gender border. In the oscillating mode,
‘implying’ is privileged, as with the male ‘transvestite’, who temporarily wishes to imply that he is a woman. ‘Transcending’ the binary divide privileges the sub-process of ‘re-defining’, as part of a radical critique of gender polarities. Least identified and understood in the medical, research, academic, and sub-cultural literatures is the mode of transgendering we term ‘negating’. When the sub-process of ‘erasing’ is privileged, we are likely to be witnessing the ‘negating’ mode of transgendering, and, where relevant, the emergence of a negating identity, as with the female to ‘ungendered’ person (O’Keefe and Fox 2003: 40–41) and the ‘male sissy maid’ (Ekins and King 2006: 152–158). Some ‘negators’ seek to become as ‘gender less’ as possible. Others, like many male sissy maids, may be feminised or feminise themselves, in the service of their sex, sexuality and gender demaling (Ekins and King 2006: 143–180).
As Plummer points out, ‘Solitary “experiences” are converted into “beings” through the construction of stories of identity’ (1995: 118, emphasis in original). The emergence of new stories of identity depends on the appearance of those we term ‘identity innovators’. In the transgender field the dominant tendency has been for innovators within medico-psychiatric communities of ‘experts’ to construct new categorisations and typologies. However, some trans identities have emerged as a result of collaborations between ‘experts’ and ‘members’, and sometimes the line between them is blurred (Ekins and King 2006). The extent to which particular stories of identity are accepted by both ‘experts’ and ‘members’ is variable, and the struggles to promote or discredit them can sometimes be strenuous and bitter. Recent years, as we shall see, have been marked by ‘members’ increasingly becoming ‘experts’.
At various times and places, certain stories ‘cannot be told’ (Plummer 1995). These stories are taboo and attempts are made to silence their tellers. Such stories, in the context of this chapter, we term ‘unwelcome stories’. All stories may, of course, be variously welcome or unwelcome depending on the audience, but in this chapter we focus on two stories that are particularly unwelcome in the context of the dominant transgender narratives that have achieved a degree of respectability since the end of the twentieth century. Principally, these stories—those of the ‘autogynephilic transsexual’ and the ‘male sissy’—are unwelcome because they privilege sexuality (the erotic) which has been underplayed, often to the point of extinction, as the ‘acceptable faces’ of transvestism and transsexualism have come to be characterised, increasingly, in terms of ‘gender’, both by most ‘experts’ and most ‘members’ (Ekins and King 2006).
In particular, as we shall see, the ‘acceptable faces’ of transgender have emerged in large measure through a symbiotic relationship between ‘experts’ and ‘members’, which has adopted a ‘gender identity story’ of transgender phenomenon. The ‘autogynephilia story’ has been read by many ‘experts’ and ‘members’ as potentially undermining the gains made by the ‘gender identity’ story, whether in terms of the latter story’s potential
to incorporate a biological basis for transsexualism, the theory of the sexed brain (Swaab and Garcia-Falguera 2009), or its potential to lead to a non-medicalised, non-pathological conceptualisation of transgender phenomenon, as favoured by many contemporary trans activists (James 2008) and their supporters.
At the time Plummer (1995) was writing, he could only hint at the role that the personal networked computer might come to play in the telling of sexual stories. Today, the Internet has become a major, indeed, to many, the major medium through which stories of all kinds, not just sexual stories, are told. Most importantly, for unwelcome stories, it offers the teller of such stories anonymity. Tellers, as it were, can put their heads above the parapet in comparative safety. Secondly, it enables the stories to reach others who might identify with them to an extent that would have been impossible before the development of the Internet. By the same token, the Internet enables unwelcome stories to be heard by those who would rather not hear them and who would seek to silence them. A corollary of this, of course, is that the researcher has easy access both to the stories, and in some cases, as in this chapter, to the teller of the stories.
Hirschfeld (1991 ) distinguished the ‘transvestite’ from the ‘homosexual’. Benjamin (1966) popularised the division of Hirschfeld’s ‘transvestite’ into two: the ‘transvestite’ and the ‘transsexual’, thus facilitating the development of the three major transgendering identities available from the 1960s through to the late 1980s: the transsexual, the transvestite and the gay drag queen. Following the work of trans community activist, Virginia Prince, the principal ‘transvestite’ identity available from the 1960s onwards, in an emerging trans sub-culture, privileged a gender motivation, as opposed to a sexual (erotic) motivation for cross-dressing (Ekins and King 2005). The male cross-dresser was said to be expressing the ‘woman within’, thus reformulating Hirschfeld’s categorisation, and the medico-psychiatric work that built upon it. It was a ‘member’ (sub-cultural) as opposed to a ‘scientific’ (medical) story. Virginia Prince was a trans person. The Benjamin (scientific) story of changing the body to fit the mind, and the Prince (member) story of developing the ‘woman within’, as well as the gay drag emphasis upon performance and theatricality, entailed a downplaying of the relevance of unwelcome sexuality in all the major transgendering stories.
The end of the 1980s and beginnings of the 1990s ushered in a paradigm shift in the conceptualisation and theorisation of transgender phenomena. In the first place there was the move to a ‘beyond the binary’ view of gender, which we consider in terms of ‘transcending’ (Ekins and King 2006). This shift had both modernist and postmodernist variants. Feinberg (1992), for instance, reconceptualised transgender in terms of a Marxist modernist ‘grand narrative’. Bornstein (1994) and Wilchins (1997), on the other hand, situated their work within postmodernist readings of gender performance and fluidity. In the second place, the greater awareness of transgender diversity, combined with a critique of the major medico-psychiatric
categorisations, lessened the need for many trans people to ‘find themselves’ with reference to an available medico-psychiatric categorisation, as had been the norm prior to the end of the 1980s. For many, acceptance of a broad ‘trans’ or postmodernist ‘gender queer’ label sufficed (Nestle, Howell and Wilchins 1997). For others, however, the move to the acceptance of greater diversity led to the emergence of new refinements of categorisation and identity, as they sought to identify precisely who and what they were. It was within this latter backdrop that the two identities of the autogynephilic transsexual and the male sissy emerged.
Significantly, this latter paradigm shift coincided with developments in Internet technology that made the Internet an increasingly accessible resource for trans people.2
Those at the vanguard of the postmodernist movement in transgender identity deconstruction (Bornstein 1994) often linked their arguments to the Internet as an aspect of post modernity. Here was a virtual world which to the participants might be ‘more real than my real life’, as one participant put it, ‘who turns out to be a man playing a woman who is pretending to be a man’ (Turkle 1995: 10). Certainly, there seemed to be an elective affinity between the postmodern-identifying trans people who were ‘playing with’ and ‘performing’ their gender(s) and the Internet within which it was possible to present in any gender (or none) that one wished (Whittle 1996; see also, Stryker 2000).
As social constructionist sociologists, however, we do not think there is anything inherently ‘modern’ or ‘postmodern’ about any technology, let alone the Internet. Neither do we believe that the use made of any technology is necessarily either modernist or postmodernist. Rather the task of the empirically-inclined social constructionist is to investigate that use with detailed empirical studies (e.g., Kendall 1998; Hegland and Nelson 2002; Hill 2005, Lin 2006; Shapiro 2004). We find particularly striking the fact that the Internet enabled an emerging voice for unwelcome identities; including the two unwelcome transgender identities that we focus upon in this chapter. Neither of these two identities would have developed in the way they did without the Internet. Janice, the self-identified autogynephilic transsexual we considered in Ekins and King (2001b), put it this way: ‘Virtual contact creates critical mass. It was the Internet effect: that no matter how small a minority you belong to, you c...