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Is Trans-Gendering the New Homosexuality?: Some Thoughts on the Subject

The author was intrigued with the story of Miles and Samantha, both of whom surgically altered their original sexes, yet met and fell in love. What happens when a body radically changes to reflect a different gender while remaining fundamentally the original sex?

Vanessa Raney

Aubrey Beardsley illustration When I saw The Maury Show’s episode of “They’re called trans-men,” which aired earlier in 2005, I was intrigued with the story of Miles and Samantha, both of whom surgically altered their original sexes, yet met and fell in love. I would argue that in this case, what you have is a perfect example of soul mates, as I believe they were destined to meet despite their intentioned sexual genes. In our society which seeks to define acceptability based on standards of appearance, the very existence of Miles and Samantha challenges heterosubjective norms in which non-altered men and women propagate the species.

What happens, however, when a body radically changes to reflect a different gender while remaining fundamentally the original sex? Looking to Miles and Samantha, what their engagement suggests (Miles actually proposed to Samantha on the show) is that, as Simone de Beauvoir argues, we are socially responsive to explicit expressions of outward ontogeny which may be contrary to how we identify with ourselves. On the other hand, if identity is a social construction, what do Miles and Samantha contribute toward debates about homosexuality?

In early Greece, men wrote appreciatively about the male body. Young boys especially were seen as beautiful because, in my opinion, they represented reflections on lost youth and the potential for greatness in a world that saw women as contributors more to the home than to politics. Thus, when philosophers talked about soul mates, they were open to beliefs that men could find love with other men and women with other women, while at the same time advocating for traditional roles that, borrowing from Darwin, promoted the preservation of the species.

In our age we have the technology to alter our physical bodies in ways unthinkable a millennium ago. Plastic surgery, which has been around for years in our constant search for better and more vetted bodies, today claims the tools to make women and men into their genuine gendered opposites. Assuming we have not figured out yet how to make men-women and women-men able to participate in procreative acts of fertility, I suggest this is not too far behind. Already, we are talking about conditioning embryos toward specific attributes. Yet, despite these advances, can we truly become something other than what we were intended? What makes the situation between Miles and Samantha interesting is that they were both born as opposite sexes to what they are today. Both, like other trans-genders on The Maury Show, talked about how they always felt uncomfortable with their bodies and did not ascribe to the expectations of dress and behavior expected of their first genders. However, their choice to become “the other” in the binary that pairs men against women, despite the biological proof that what really separates us is the chemical composition of our bodies, raises other questions.

For example, if a man grows up attracted to the male sex, identifies more with so-called feminine attributes than with masculine stereotypes, and feels incompatible in his body, is he a homosexual or, to take a turn of phrase, a woman trapped inside a man’s body? In American society, we continue to typecast men and women into particular roles, and legitimate policies that allow for the continued discrimination of homosexuals and other men and women who do not play by the rules of heterosexual norms. So, is it really surprising that potentially homosexual men or women would opt to express themselves physically in ways that make them acceptable?

After all, what is the definition of homosexuality except as an erotic desire to be with a person of the same gender, while bisexuality concerns the simultaneous attractions for men and women. Drag queens and kings reveal a willingness to express all aspects of themselves, though they have a more exotic reputation (as movies like The Rocky Horror Picture Show make clear) than cross-dressers who challenge societal assumptions by fashioning themselves after the power model of masculinity since, as far as I know, most of these are women.

Mary Wollstonecraft was a nineteenth century writer who put down women who did not conform to feminine behaviors, though these “masculine women” actively participated in the political sphere. Even in the twenty-first century, we still use the phrase “masculine women” to denote women who are powerful and aggressive but not necessarily beautiful or, in the case of men, handsome. If we accept the argument that the Brothers Grimm collected their Fairy Tales as a guidebook for girls to accept rich suitors even if they were ugly, the correlation is clear.

Speaking of money, I imagine that undertaking the kind of surgeries that Miles and Samantha risked requires a safety net of funds since I suspect that most insurance companies will not cover the associated costs unless the operations are necessary to a patient’s health or, as in the example of a disfigured survivor, to recover self-worth. This presents two possibilities: either the men and women who assume these financial burdens pay with credit cards and/or loans or they are wealthy enough to take on the debts without discomforting over them.

I remember attending an event at Scripps College last year in which the drag king performer encouraged us to be willing to express all aspects of ourselves if we truly desired to know ourselves. A female undergraduate in the audience, during the Q&A, eagerly exclaimed that she wanted to experiment with her sexual identity, but did not yet have the opportunity. The fact that the younger generation appears to be more open about sexuality, how unlikely do you think it is that in ten to twenty years from now, we won’t see reversals in policy?

From my perspective, I think as trans-gender reversal surgeries become more mainstream, we will find ourselves in a whole new territory that will make our contestations about same-sex marriages a thing of the past. After all, if a person can change his or her sex while still remaining attracted to the same sex she or he felt as an original sexed body of a different gender, how easy would it be to circumvent current laws that make it difficult for homosexuals to achieve the same rights and freedoms as heterosexuals? Returning again to my earlier contention that Miles and Samantha represent a perfect case study for soul mates, my position is that the probability of a woman-man and a man-woman finding real love with an equally trans-gendered other is slim to none. I remember a woman-man on the show who shouted out love to his wife, who remained with him after she found out about his original sex, but then, given that he did not have the male anatomy, their relationship bears more on homosexual love than Miles and Samantha’s seemingly heterosexual love.

That is my whole point! What Miles and Samantha share is exactly what I could expect to have with a man who also retains his original heterosexuality. Just think about it. If I change my sex to become socially accepted as a man and then fall for a woman who was originally a man, am I not expressing homoerotic desires even if outwardly I, as a man, am attracted to the social equivalent of a woman? Hence my fascination: How far will we go not to be cast out as deviants from a society that accepts a legal social discourse based on exclusionary heterosexism?

This almost represents a tautology. In this case, Miles was a woman who became a man who loves a woman, while Samantha was a man who became a woman who loves a man. Despite their acquired sexual differences, their original desires have not changed. My contention is that trans-gendering actually represents a new, acceptable homosexuality because it both denies the identification of homosexual individuals and allows for the identity of homoeroticism. It is difficult, however, to hear Miles and Samantha’s story and not see them as heterosexuals.

Thus, the question becomes: What defines heterosexuality? Or more specifically, If heterosexual attraction signifies man and woman, what then of trans-gendered people like Miles and Samantha who being men and women seem to express outward nuances of heterosexuality but in fact act on homosexual desires? It is my personal belief that we cannot change who we are fundamentally, no matter what we might do to hide ourselves in the eyes of others. Here, “the eye of the beholder” refers to societal norms that govern specific behaviors. I remember that when I presented a paper for the 2003 North Georgia Student Philosophy Conference at Kennesaw State University, I heard an undergraduate talk about a medical experiment in which a man was successfully impregnated with an embryo, though I was unable to locate a relevant article. When I consider that in parallel to trans-gender surgery, however, I wonder what will happen to notions of masculinity if men are able to choose pregnancy and deliver babies. This is no different from my inquiry about what it means to be heterosexual.

For myself, I became a heterosexual at the point when I recognized the function of my body in relation to men. While I had many crushes on boys and guys before the age of twenty-two, I did not appreciate the distinction between ideations of sexuality and its internalization. I believe heterosexuality, as homosexuality, is individually defined by our own biological processes. So I am not quick to disregard genetic arguments that call for the attribution of markers to explain why many of us are heterosexuals and others homosexuals.

I do not know what to think about bisexuality except as an experiment for people to come to a definite sense about themselves in relation to their sexualities. When I think about trans-gendering, however, I believe that at least one motivation for people who assume the risks for the radical transformations of their bodies is an underlying desire to be socially accepted instead of being forced to confront the fear of social reprisals that used to keep more people in the closet. If that is true, what does it say about persecutorial complex?

With the debates raging about homosexuals, same-sex marriages, abortion rights, stem cell research issues, maternity leaves for women (and men), etc., it is fair to say that trans-gendering represents a new homosexuality in a climate that condones the free expression of bodies. With homosexuals’ history of persecution, would a social milieu that seems to be getting more stringent on individual expressions of identity while leaning more toward fundamentalism inspire confidence that they will gain the basic rights that heterosexuals take for granted?

Better yet: If I marry but choose not to have children, is it any different from a same-sex couple who wishes to adopt? Sure, people argue against invasive fertility treatments, but does anyone think about the children whose parents gave them up and whose cuteness factors decrease as they age? Where are the protestors against the fertility drugs that increase the likelihood women will get pregnant with multiple babies? If sexual desire is a product of internal and external factors, why do we work hard to mandate it instead of trying to solve real problems?

The way we segregated blacks in the Jim Crow era and beyond, we are segregating homosexuals from heterosexuals over things we did not used to be able to change as overtly as trans-gendering allows: appearances. So then, what makes a heterosexual? I will tell you: a heterosexual is someone whose outward ontogeny reflects on specific normative values that define the expectations of heterosexuality as someone who is attracted to people of the opposite sex, who subscribes to traditional ideas of home and family, who looks or acts hetero, etc.

The problem is it is too easy to qualify or dismiss a person as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or trans-gendered. Cross-dressers and drag kings and queens, on the other hand, are often grouped in with homosexuals or bisexuals, though they may be heterosexuals. The story of Miles and Samantha perfectly reveals the dichotomies between representations of sexuality and intentions of sexuality. In the fact of their being woman-man and man-woman, they also point to new directions for studies in sexuality. The question is, Why does sexuality matter?

This is Vanessa Raney's first contribution to Bad Subjects.

Graphic: Aubrey Beardsley, color by Bad Subjects.