A Psychoanalytic Model of Transgenderality

| Jun 8, 2020
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Freud • Lacan • The construction of ‘Feminine Sexuality’ • The (re)negotiation of the Oedipus complex • The indeterminate gender identity • Desire • The coalescing of transfemininity •

1. Freud.

As noted by a number of observers, Freud’s Oedipus complex is clearly binary and dichotomous in its assumptions of gender and sexuality.1 While the extent to which biology influences Freud’s notions of gender is still under dispute,2 there is little doubt that the original schemata exorcised a universalizing vision of masculine and feminine identity.

The Oedipal Law imposed on gendered humanity was more than a cultural injunction against incestuous desire, it was a

Sigmund Freud

nomos which existed in specific relation to the instinctive drives which generate the subject. Without the (biologistic) determinant of the sex drive, the universal mandate against incestual desire would be unnecessary. Social and educative factors are merely the civilizing constraints imposed on the ‘reality’ of primordial need. Gendered behavior being determined by nature and genitality, the corporeal status of Body ensures that no-one is exempt.

The Oedipus complex subsequently assumed a concrete monologue of gender-roles established a priori: in Aristotelian terms, sexual difference and gender identity are in the nature of the beast. While it is perfectly natural for the infant to desire his (m)other, it is also in his nature to seek the phallocratic power offered to him by the Oedipal Law.3

Under this system, Man is an absolute state of being, the Subject of the Law. Woman, recognized by only the slightest of margins, can exist only as its Object. Otherness was defined by its inversion of essentially masculine ‘norms’. The Homosexual, the Eonist, the Sapphist, the Hysteric and the Pervert were all corruptions of the natural order.

The prevalence of this dualistic model means that one is either ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’. Let us imagine the Oedipus Complex as a heterosexual Labyrinth: only those possessing a ‘natural’ gendered identity can survive. As gender is (assumed to be) biologically determined, it cannot be negotiated. The minotaur guarding the exit demands total submission to the Oedipal Law: any deviation is a crime against nature — unnatural.

We might therefore argue that while Freud’s Oedipus complex invested the heterosexual male with the psycho-sexual attributes of manhood, it was also the apparatus by which society divested the Other of all humanity, i.e. of its voice. The chasm between Self and Other is inviolate and irrevocable. To span the divide is to surrender manhood, to re-enter the Labyrinth, to defy the minotaur. And that, of course, would be unthinkable.4

2. Lacan

Jacque Lacan

Lacan’s reading of Freud demonstrated the semiotic structuring of gender. Lacan was aware of the contradictions posed by the phallogocentric structure of Freud’s Oedipus complex, not the least being the paradoxical status of The Woman (or rather, The Woman, to use specific terminology) — denied subjectivity and refused existence as anything other than an image within masculinist visuality.

One of the solutions offered by Lacan’s interpretation was to locate gender and subjectivity within the field of language: the human subject, born into language, is therefore constructed by language.5 The relation of the Self to the objective world is determined externally, defined invariably by the presence of the Other. As a speaking, communicating entity, the subject comes into existence only through a sustained dialogue with the Object (of desire). For the child, Desire is the first cause of dialogue: desire of the (m)other, and the desire to be desired by the (m)other.

. . . Lacan’s human subject is . . . a being that can only conceptualize itself when it is mirrored back to itself from the position of another’s desire.6

But as Desire is initially an asexual response to an absence (of the Other, a desired object), sexuality and gender are neither absolute nor pre-determined in any sense, even the biological. Freud had already demonstrated that sexuality is not fixed within specifically heterosexual parameters,7 Lacan theorized that gender is similarly non-specific: while subject, sexuality, and gender are all structured in terms of a radical split or division,8 the structure functions independently of genital anatomy.

(Lacan’s schema) is an adamant rejection of any theory of the difference between the sexes in terms of pre-given male or female entities which complete and satisfy each other. Sexual difference can only be the consequence of a division; without this division it would cease to exist. But it must exist because no human being can become a subject outside the division of the two sexes. One must take up a position as either man or woman. Such a position is by no means identical with one’s biological sexual characteristics, nor is it a position of which one can be very confident – as the psychoanalytical experience demonstrates.9

Subjectivity, sexuality and gender are all dichotomous structures within the linguistic framework; each is defined in relation to an Other. Humanity is understood and categorized through binary systems – subject and object, heterosexual and homosexual, masculine and feminine, self and other. Mind and Body are discoursed as complimentary or opposite. The Body is further subjected to polarized groupings, reflecting a perceived sexual difference: male or female, XX or XY, penis or vagina, phallic or castrated. But it is only through language that these differences assume an ‘immutable’ status as the signifiers of gender.

Let us then consider Lacan’s Oedipus complex as a maze of words, wherein the subject is directed by Signification. The sign s/he follows is the Phallus, the chief signifier of Desire in Western culture.10 The other signs — those signifying gender, sex, Body, sexuality etc., are also pointing towards the Phallus, which lies — evidently — beyond the confines of the Oedipus complex.

3. The construction of ‘Feminine Sexuality’.

Let us now assume a multiplicity of pathways leading out of the Oedipus complex. While the phallus is marked above the various exits of this pluralist labyrinth, each passage leads to a place of Difference. The heterosexual male leaves the complex by exchanging the phallus for masculinity and identifying with the Father. To all intents and purposes, the boy inherits the phallus, although Desire becomes for him an ever-receding horizon line to which he can never gain proximity.

Desire and phallus are both highly Protean concepts which can never be resolved into a final shape or form. We might argue, in fact, that transformation and metamorphosis are the chief characteristics of the phallus. The Object can be virtually anything — the body of a man, an image of The Woman, a pair of stiletto heels, even, as Freud tells us, an athletic supporter which actually hides the presence of the male genitalia.

While the resolution of gender/sexual identity is a relatively straightforward process for the heterosexual male, resolution can be somewhat more problematic for the Other. For The Woman, there is no deferred gratification, no Oedipal covenants promising adequate compensation for the surrendering of Desire. The Woman is constructed as ‘castrated’; the masculine gaze represents her as physically lacking the phallus. Subsequently, she can have no innate sexuality. Although The Woman can be desired, she can never feel desire, which is wholly the domain of the Man. This is the status of The Woman, at least when structured in purely phallocratic terms.11

The phallogocentric arrangement is immediately evident in this system. Women are represented as either neuroticized or ‘inverted’ by the Oedipus complex. Frigidity and submissive femininity are seen as ‘normal’, masculinity or lesbianism ‘abnormal’. In contrast, Adams and Lacan deny the rigidity of Freud’s concept of women’s sexuality. The Woman does not exist beyond semiotic construction; she is a structure of the symbolic, her Body resides in the Imaginary. As such, The Woman is at liberty to free her sexuality from Freudian gender and function outside the sexual roles imposed by the Oedipus complex.

Employing appropriately preposterous language, Lacan elucidated on the contradictions involved in The Woman’s state of constructed Otherness, stating that ‘Woman’ does not exist in any sense beyond the semiotic:

. . . The woman relates to the signifier of this Other, in so far as, being Other, it can only remain Other. . . . As the place where everything of the signifier which can be articulated comes to the signified, the Other is, in its very foundation, radically the Other.12

Is this the ultimate designation of The Woman — to be the Radical Other, nothing more than a signifier of Man’s phallic desire, a repository for his Oedipally repressed sexuality? Postmodern feminist theory rejects such a notion:

. . . Women are not simply passively assimilated by the theory, for, as feminists, they can actively intervene into it or utilise some of its methods and insights in order to understand women’s construction in and by culture. 13

Jacqueline Rose theorizes that The Woman’s indeterminate quantum state allows for the possibility of a position above the phallic object whilst retaining the signification of radical Otherness:

. . . The Woman does not exist, in that phallic sexuality assigns her to a position of fantasy. Lacan argues that the sexual relation hangs on a fantasy of oneness, which the woman has come to support.

. . . Against this fantasy, Lacan sets the concept of jouissance. Jouissance  is used to refer to that moment of sexuality which is always in excess, something over and above the phallic term which is the mark of sexual identity.14

The Woman, then, is a total construction, an elaborate(d) phallic signifier inscribed on the Body of a thinking, communicating entity. The paradox is this: as the Other, Woman is denied a voice. Yet as a speaking being, she can — potentially — function and interact beyond the fantasy-object of masculinist subjectivity. The outcome of this relational conundrum relies on The Woman’s capacity to reconstruct herself, to adopt subjectivity. As sexual difference is socially constructed through language, The Woman may, regardless of her biological identity, redesign her gender through the spoken word:

. . . As a subject in process, in language, woman is at liberty to counter anatomy and with it, the claims of essential femininity, freeing herself from the fixed terms of identity by recognition of its textual production. And it is against this mobility that Lacan ‘places’ the hypostasis of Western Phallocentric culture, with its enshackling, oppressive effects and calls it fraud.15

4. The (re)negotiation of the Oedipus complex.

Adams has already employed a modified Oedipus complex to theorize a lesbian sado-masocism developing independently of masculinist fetishism.16 A similar structure will be required to posit a psychoanalytic model of transfemininity, one which employs the veiling of the phallic signifier whilst simultaneously ruling out fetishistic object-transference.17

It is generally accepted that pre-iconic (or pre-symbolic) children are asexual up until the beginning of the mirror stage, at which point the recognition and differentiation of gender becomes possible, due to the dyadic structure of Self and Other — although subjective gender is, for the child, still indeterminate. Resolution of gender begins with the Oedipus complex, i.e., upon entry into the order of the symbolic.

Entry into the symbolic shatters the original mother-child dyad, allowing the subject to function in an individualist and relational sense; communication with the ‘third term’ becomes possible. It is through language that the child acquires a symbolic position within culture. Being symbolic, the position suggests a verbal, economic and sociological hierarchy in which the symbolic child can now locate itself.

Location within this semiotic hierarchy is established through the child’s identification with one of its parents — the assumption of a gender role. In heterosexual culture, gender is equated with biological sex: male = Man, female = Woman. As society is structured phallocentrically, Man is represented as the bearer of the phallus and patriarchal authority. Woman, on the other hand, is granted only a ‘castrated’ position — castrated in a visual (apparently lacking a penis) as well as a sociological sense (disempowered, subordinate to the Man).

Both Freud and Lacan were at pains to emphasize the importance of Desire and phallus within this system. Desire becomes coded as sexual. Male or female, the child desires its (m)other, just as it desires to be the (m)other’s object of desire.18 In a complex vectoring of the subject/object dichotomy, the child desires both to possess the phallus and to be the phallus.

In heterosexual culture, the Oedipus complex serves to regulate both phallus and Desire in order to prepare the child for confrontation with the ‘third term’. Oedipal Law forces the boy to seek the phallus beyond the mother-child dyad, Desire is diverted from its original Object. But desire for the phallus never ceases to exist; like energy, it is simply converted into another form.

Under the predetermined arrangement of sexual/gender signifiers operating within Patriarchal culture, masculine libido is represented as subjective Desire.19 The Woman, by contrast, is divested of libido and sexuality; her representative image can be structured only as the object of Desire. In short, Man desires, Woman is desired. This structure places women, gays and lesbians in the field of the Other.

The Woman is incapable of feeling desire — she can only desire to be desired, by a Man. If she feels desire for a Man, she is assuming a sexually aggressive masculine role, forsaking her ‘true’ feminine identity. If she desires another woman, then she has succumbed to penisneid; she has become a lesbian. This juxtapositioning of the desired object also functions as an inversion of traditional masculinity. When a man  becomes desirable, he is no longer a man, he has surrendered masculinity and with it all claim to the phallus. A desirable male, under Patriarchal Law, becomes the Other: as The Woman cannot feel desire, logically the desirable male can only be desired by Man. Therefore, a male who wishes to be desired by Man is regarded as homosexual — as is the male who desires him; Man only Desires The Woman, after all.

Let us now return to our image of the Oedipus complex as a pluralist labyrinth with a multitude of passageways, each leading to a site of difference. I have proposed this image in contrast to the model discussed by Freud. It is an image more appropriate with the notion of multisexuality. Patriarchal monosexualty has lost its relevance in the postmodern era; conventional heterosexuality is only one amidst a plethora of significant Others, so to speak.20

A pluralist revision of the Oedipus complex allows for greater and wider mobility between gender and sexuality. Gender is still structured dichotomously, even represented in terms of polarities. However, this system of binary opposites is mediated by a symbolic order in which the phallus has a limitless capacity for transferal and Desire is common to subject and object. The result is a plethora of behavioral characteristics which ‘violate’ traditional sexual roles. As Mitchell says, the subject will ultimately take up a position as either man or woman, but these positions are not determined biologically. Nor are sexual differences necessarily reduced to stereotypes of gender.

The Oedipus complex still performs its vital task of dividing the subject and providing an access into the Real through the symbolic. The phallus remains the chief signifier of Desire in this system, but the relationship of gender to the signifying chain is multivalent. Females invested with the phallus remain women; males seeking the phallus in the body of another male may retain a masculine gender identity. The desire to be desired does not imply social or libidinal castration. As the phallus may be disguised in virtually any representative form, we might now describe difference as structured (ph)allocentrically.

5. The indeterminate gender identity.

The emergence of the transfeminine child from the Oedipus complex presents for us a triple paradox. To begin with, we must presume an ungendered state in the child and conventional (heterosexual) gender roles in the child’s cultural and social environment. The child must also understand the symbolic relationship between genitality and gender; that to be Man, one must possess the penis-phallus. This is the first paradox: an ungendered child who understands phallocentric gender.

Semiotic contrast between gendered states is therefore crucial — the third term must be represented in an authoritative patriarchal figure, the (m)other must represent Otherness, polarized states between which the subject can vacillate. And herein lies the second paradox: the emergence of a transgendered child is dependent on the subject’s access to polarized gender roles. A transgendered subjectivity is only possible if the Oedipal structure represents gender as dichotomous and polarized binaries.21

Does this contradict our previous observations? No, as mentioned above, although the Oedipal structure is itself rigidly binary, the veiling and transferring of the phallus acts to produce sexual diversity. However, the transgendered child normally sees itself as polarized between anatomy and gender. And herein lies the second paradox: for while gender is irrelevant to sex, a transgendered subject represents itself in the gender conventionally associated with its sexual ‘opposite’.

While aware of the anatomical and gender differences between men and women, the Oedipal child’s gender identity remains unresolved for months, sometimes for years, until a final gender coalesces at the end of the complex. While highly mimetic, children have no natural impulses where gender is concerned — little girls will often assume ‘masculine’ roles during play (‘dress-up’, or ‘house’), an infant boy will happily push prams or wear aprons in emulation of his mother until something else claims his interest. Oedipal behavior is not automatically gender specific; the Oedipus Complex is a period of cognitive development in which gender is learned and alternated.

In the majority of cases, the indeterminacy of gender ‘burns out’ before the age of three. Most children develop conventional gender roles compliant with the phallocentric arrangement of patriarchal culture. However, the transfeminine child’s emergence from the indeterminate gender stage is marked by the coalescence of a feminine identity. To varying degrees, s/he will see hirself as a girl with the body of a boy. Why is this so? How did the transfeminine child’s Oedipal experience differ from that of the conventionally gendered child?

6. Desire

Desire, and the desire to be desired is expressed in the first instance as an infant’s asexual impulse to return to the completeness of the mother-child dyad. This is a supposedly universal characteristic of human subjectivity.22 Desire is above all a wish for something absent — we can only desire things which we do not possess — a negativity which is can never be satisfied — and, ultimately, is inexpressible due to the repressive experiences of the Oedipus complex.23

However, the cultural injunction against Desire of the (m)other can only change its articulating form; what is inexpressible (unspeakable) in one language can be fluently expressed in another. The Woman is constructed within the order of the symbolic, in a (largely visual) language which both articulates Desire and promises its fulfillment. This is, of course, a semiotic contradiction — Desire can never be satisfied, as the phallus is never truly accessible. The contradiction is intrinsic to the construction — if the phallus represented by The Woman were available, no one would desire it.

While all children desire to be desired, the cultural processing of the complex alters the child’s perception of itself in relation to Desire: the boy can no longer seek possession of the (m)other, he can no longer seek to be her sole object. However, the boy exists within a pre-established system of meaning which posits The Woman as the Object of Desire.24 Cart-blanche may be denied by Oedipal Law, but the boy nonetheless is provided with an acceptable object of Desire. Within patriarchal culture, The Woman is defined by her desirability. Men Desire, Women are Desired. 

Consider now the image of the gender-ambiguous (male) child confronted by the Oedipal Law. His subjectivity is understood only from the view point of another’s desire. He desires to be desired by the Other. He cannot be the (m)other’s object of Desire, but he wishes to be desired nonetheless.

How does the child deal with such a vast, overriding contradiction?

For most infant males, the solution is to adopt the gender role bequeathed to them by society. Identifying with the Father (in whatever form the third term takes), he sacrifices his role as the Mother’s desired object in order to pursue the phallus in another form. He accepts the masculine gender and is defined by his capacity to feel Desire.

The transfeminine child, in contrast, will deal with the Oedipal contradiction by becoming the Object of Desire. Unwilling to relinquish his desire to be desired, he identifies with the ‘feminine gender’, he becomes The Woman, i.e. desirable. He lives in a world literally (and visually) inundated with images of women’s desirability, where the Beauty Myth is perpetuated through the culture industry, readily accessible through television, video, and every conceivable outlet of the electronic media. If he is capable of perceiving gender in all its polarized complexity, then he is capable of ‘reading’ the position of The Woman within the hierarchy of Desire.

This is not to say that the child conceives desirability in wholly sexual terms (although this is entirely possible, according to Freud and Lacan). Gender is, of course, signified by innumerable behavioral, linguistic and cultural signifiers, each of which are influenced by countless economic, ethnographic and demographic factors. Desire is, however, the basis of the identification; feminine behavior in transgendered males usually begins when indeterminate gender behavior ceases in other boys. This is not a conscious decision on the part of the transfeminine child, it cannot be seen as being a decision of any kind, any more than a female ‘chooses’ to be a girl or a male ‘determines’ to be a boy.

7. The coalescing of transfemininity

The coalescing of a transfeminine identity, like any other, occurs when the subject locates itself within the order of the symbolic: when it is able to attach meaning to the Self, when it is capable of articulating its relationship to the objective world. The transfeminine child’s most frequent expression of Self comes in one of two phrases: ‘I am a girl’, or, alternately, ‘I want to be a girl’. One locates the Self as the Other, the second articulates a wish to be the Other. Entry into the symbolic provides the child with an understanding of Self and Other, she sees the Otherness of The Woman, and Desires what is forbidden. In effect, the child’s Desire is to be the very thing s/he perceives hirself not to be.

Does this contradict the transfemme’s often reported belief that hir core identity is feminine, that s/he is a woman? Not at all; even prepubescent transfeminine boys acknowledge their biological sex — it is their position within the gender continuum which they dispute. I would even venture to say that the transfeminine child understands the transgressive nature of hir claim ‘I am a girl’. Passage through the Oedipus complex ensures that she comprehends the phallocentric notion of the relationship between sex and gender i.e., that the presence or absence of a penis appears to dictate gender. To all intents and purposes, she is a boy. The child is then faced with the supreme paradox: biology and society unanimously declares hir to be a boy, and yet at the same time, s/he sees hirself unquestionably and unequivocally as a girl. Rejecting all the external evidence to the contrary, the subject knows itself to be Woman.

We cannot, of course, hypothesize a child capable of deconstructing the Patriarchal mode of representing sexual difference. As mentioned above, the child makes no conscious decision to become transgendered; s/he cannot possibly comprehend the implications of hir unconscious disrupting of gender codes. But the disruption itself, as noted above, presents the child with a problem rivaling Alexander’s knot: while s/he is subjectively a girl, hir Body, which for society at large is the absolute definition of gender — is male.

This is, perhaps, the ultimate conundrum facing all transgendered individuals; the inescapable disruption to cultural norms and societal dictates. As Marjorie Garber argued in Vested Interests, the culturally transgressive presence of the transgenderist serves to destabilize all of the patriarchally imposed boundaries between gender and sexuality.25 Following this line of reasoning, the Transfeminine Identity is intrinsic to the development of the human psyche, and the implications are therefore as unavoidable as they are far reaching:

To be transfeminine is to challenge all biologistic models of sex and gender.

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1 Grosz, Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction, p3. See also Rose, Jacqueline, Sexuality in the Field of Vision, Verso, London, 1986, p. 6, and Juliet Mitchell ‘Introduction I’ in Lacan, Jacques, and the ecole Freudienne, Feminine Sexuality, Macmillan Press, London, 1982, p 6.

2 Grosz, Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction, p. 54. Elizabeth Grosz and a number of other writers have commented that the revolutionary character of Freud’s work gave rise to countless misunderstandings and controversies over the development of the human psyche. Feminist theorists have often remarked on the phallocentric nature of Freud’s Oedipus complex, a system which preserves masculinist privilege and status from one generation to the next.

Despite this arguably justified criticism, the integration of Freud’s theories into the arena of feminist discourse(s) has been one of the most influential programmes of the postmodern period. Jessica Benjamin, Julia Kristiva, and Juliet Mitchell, to name just a few, developed schemas of subjectivity acknowledging some degree of debt to Freud’s writings. Employing Freud to analyse patriarchally defined gender-norms, many feminists have concentrated on the issues of women’s sexuality and the problematic position of women within the Oedipal structure. As Mitchell hypothesized in 1974, Freudian psychoanalysis was an important tool for ‘understanding the ideological and psychological aspects of oppression’. See Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism, 1974.

3 Briefly, the Oedipus complex theorises a subject or ego which ‘emerges’ in early childhood as the result of a desire to possess its mother, an incestuous wish or fantasy which is diverted, sometimes traumatically, by an (unspoken) injunction represented in the presence of a dominating patriarchal figure. This injunction becomes for the boy, a symbolic emasculation: unable to defy the will of the Father, he perceives himself to be castrated. The process, however, is not without (illusory) compensations. While the (male) child is forbidden access to his mother, the Oedipal ‘covenant’ between father and son promises a fulfillment of this desire during adult life, when the boy adopts a (dominant) masculine role in society. The mother, now perceived as castrated in both a physical and sociological sense may be possessed in the form of another woman.

Freud posited this emerging consciousness as influenced by essentially biological factors: a collection of ‘natural drives’, so to speak. Under this system, sexuality and behaviour are consonant with the individual’s physical attributes: the ‘male ego’ emerges as strong, powerful and virile, the female as weak, submissive and fragile. Behavioural characteristics are linked intractably to biology; in ‘normal’ heterosexual culture, men are ‘naturally’ empowered to assume an authoritative position, while women – lacking the strength generally identified with the ‘masculine’ sex (i.e. devoid of the penis) – assume a subordinate role.

4 Many feminist supporters of psychoanalysis have, of course, argued that Freud’s theories did not assume a biologistically determined sexual/gender identity, but rather that conditioning and socialisation were crucial to the development of the subject. While there is little dispute that Freud was aware of the influence of external stimuli on the development of the ego, it is evident that even in his later work, Freud employed biology to explain what he saw as basic or primordial ‘drives’ governing the behaviour of men and women.

That he never quite resolved the questions raised by the nature-nurture dialogue is apparent in the fact that women have no real place in the Oedipus complex – an omission which still eludes feminist revisions today (for a more thorough discussion of this issue, see Adams, Parveen, ‘Of Female Bondage’, in T. Brennan (ed.), Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis, Routledge, London and New York, 1989, pp. 247 – 264).

For the purposes of this thesis, I will argue, along with Grosz, that biology played at least a supporting role in Freud’s theories of the Drive, the physical impulses (need) which underlie the Real. This is, of course, one of the main points of departure between Freud and Lacan, who argued that ‘the drive cannot be regarded as Real, biologically determined or natural, but is a function and effect of the field of the Other. It is, in short, of the order of language and the symbolic . . .’ (see Grosz, Jacques Lacan: a Feminist Introduction, p. 59)

5 The subjective position (I, me) is always learned from someone else, in that we see ourselves reflected from another’s position. The pre-iconic child, having no real self-concept, cannot develop identity or subjectivity until it recognises itself in the objective world.

6 Mitchell, ‘Introduction 1’, Feminine Sexuality, p. 5.

7 Ibid, p. 10. ‘(Freud) uses homosexuality to demonstrate that for the sexual drive there is no natural, automatic object; he uses the perversions to show that it has no fixed aim.’ 

8 The radical split posited by Lacan relates to his model of the ‘Mirror Stage’ of human subjectivity – the point at which the Mother-Child Dyad is shattered by the child’s realisation that it is a being separate and discontinuous from its environment. The Mother becomes, for the child, part of the objective world, while the child itself is ‘locked’ into its own subjective consciousness. From this point onward, the largely asexual child seeks a return to the oneness of the dyad, and begins to structure its other in terms of the phallic mother – the mother apparently having the ability to satisfy all desires.

This desire is becomes sexual prior to and during the Oedipus complex, when the child transfers possession of the phallus to the father, noting the ‘castrated’ appearance of the mother in contrast to the genital arrangement of the male parent. In conventional heterosexuality, the boy-child will renounce his claim to the Mother on the understanding that he will eventually inherit the phallus in maturity – by possessing his (m)other in the form of another woman. This is, of course, the sexual equivalent of the quest for the Holy Grail, one can only actively seek the Object; to actually possess it would be to annihilate Desire completely.

9 Mitchell, ‘Introduction 1’, Feminine Sexuality, p.6.

10 Lacan, Feminine Sexuality, p.83: ‘If the phallus is a signifier, then it is in the place of the Other that the subject gains access to it. But in that the signifier is only there veiled and as the ratio of the Other’s desire, so it is this desire of the Other as such which the subject has to recognise, meaning, the Other as itself, a subject divided by the signifying Spaltung.

(Spaltung   = ‘splitting’ or ‘dividing’, as in the separation of the mother-child dyad)

11 Adams, ‘Of Female Bondage’, Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis, p.249. In describing the libido as masculine, Freud allowed women’s sexuality only four extremely limited alternatives: to accept castration and to retreat from sexuality; to continue seeking the phallus (Penisneid.); to substitute ‘maternal instincts’ for the phallus (femininity); to identify with the father (masculinity complex). Adams reinterprets this arrangement in order to demonstrate the possibility of a female sexuality beyond the masculine libido.

12 Lacan, Feminine Sexuality, p. 151.

13 Grosz, Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction, p. 7.

14 Rose, introductory notes to ‘God and the Jouissance of The Woman’, Feminine Sexuality, p137. My emphasis.

15 Linker, Kate, ‘Representation and Sexuality, in Brian Wallis (ed.), Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 1984, p. 401.

16 Adams, Parveen, ‘Of Female Bondage’, in T. Brennan (ed.), Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis, Routledge, London and New York, 1989, pp. 247 – 264.

17 While it is generally believed that women cannot be fetishists due to their ‘castrated’ status, there has been considerable dispute over whether MTF transgenderality or transsexuality represents an elaborated form of fetish transference. The argument runs that as the MTF transgenderist begins initially as a biological male, ‘he’ should theoretically be prone to the same ‘perversions’ as other men. This is clearly a universalising perception of transfemininity, one which groups transfemmes with het and gay males within a specifically biologistic taxonomy.

Such generalizations ignore the complex semiotic chains and psychological processes which differentiate transfemininity from masculinist fetishism, and dismisses out of hand decades long psychological discourse which divides transvestism from ‘common’ fetish and obsession. For a well researched overview of the TV vs fetish debate, see Matlock, Jann ‘Masquerading Women, Pathologized Men: Cross-Dressing, Fetishism, and the Theory of Perversion, 1882-1935’, in Apter, Emily, and William Pietz (eds), Fetishism as Cultural Discourse, Cornell University Press, Ithica and London, 1993.

As I have argued that The Woman is a total construct, I will not, for the purposes of this essay, group transfemmes under the heading of Man. Being biologically male does not presume masculinity. I will therefore categorise MTF TVs, TGs, and TSs as variations of the constructed Woman.

18 Grosz, Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction, p. 64: ‘Each subject desires the desire of the other as its object’.

19 Ibid, p.72: ‘. . . insofar as (the girl) speaks and says ‘I’, she too must take up a place as a subject of the symbolic; yet in another, in so far as she is positioned as castrated, passive, an object of desire for men rather than a subject who desires,  her position must be marginal or tenuous: when she speaks as an ‘I’, it is never clear that she speaks (of or as) herself.’ My emphasis.

20 This hypothesis is based on the theories discussed by Craig Owens in ‘The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism’, in Hal Foster (ed.), The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Bay Press, Seattle, 1993. 

21 cf.: Mitchell, ‘Introduction 1’, Feminine Sexuality, p.6: ‘Sexual difference can only be the consequence of a division; without this division it would cease to exist. But it must exist because no human being can become a subject outside the division of the two sexes. One must take up a position as either man or woman. Such a position is by no means identical with one’s biological sexual characteristics . . .’

22 Grosz, Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction, p. 64. Grosz is here discussing primordial demand, of which desire is the symbolic equivalent.

23 Ibid, p.65.

24 Lacan, Feminine Sexuality, p.49.

25 Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York, 1992), p.34.

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Category: Transgender Body & Soul


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Kristy Leigh is a Human Rights advocate and writer who is writing a series of articles for TGForum dealing with transgender issues from an academic perspective.

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  1. Willowyone Willowyone says:

    I agree with what I assume is the general conclusion. “To be transfeminine is to challenge all biologistic models of sex and gender”.

    To simplify for my life I use anthropology to compare how transfeminine is in various cultures. Empire nation cultures use various means to keep a wealth and power concentration scheme going. Types of somatic states that they favor in order to maintain their scheme are stoicism, shame, hurry up no time for real communication, monopolisation, banning of natural services such as midwifery, restrictions on herbal natural health science information, and monetization of everything. They use academia, the banking system, madison avenue, industry, sports, law, medicalization, church, military, and state as a conduit for their propaganda.

    Look at images of males from places that have not recently been too directly under an empire nation. They lounge together, may touch without shaming or guilt, and take time to communicate. Under those conditions there may still be some residual colonialism that marginalizes the transfeminine but perhaps less so then when living directly in an empire nation. India is an example of residual colonial persecution of the transfeminine. Some Indians are cruel to the transgender population and they may hew to memes that date from colonialism under the British Empire. Many other Indians remain in pre colonial culture and feel that transfeminine is valid.

    The US is an empire nation. To be feminine with feminine intellectual abilities, skills, and sensibilities creates a better non empire community.

    I have no citations here today for my theory. Some is from past readings, image viewing of men in various cultures, and some is from my own direct positive experience with men who are from non empire nations.