Negotiating transgender identities on a South African web site

2 June 2010

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The initial celebratory response that hailed the internet as some kind of utopia, both liberatory and democratic, has been tempered and gender scholars and activists increasingly interrogate the internet in relation to gender (in)justice. Much of their work has focussed on the gendered consumption of information and communications technologies (ICTs) or, in other words, what males and females do with ICTs, and in doing this they conflate gender and sexuality.

Karl (2007:46) makes the crucial point that "the production and intersections of gender and sexual identity need to be addressed more overtly across the field of ICT consumption research to avoid reproduction of assumptions about continuities between anatomical sex and gendered practices when discussing gendered uses of ICTs". She also points out that there is a scarcity of work that engages with non-normative identities. This is in spite of the numerous lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex web sites.

One online survey conducted by Outproud and Oasis magazine of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth did consider non-normative identities. Two thirds of the respondents stated that going online had helped them accept their sexual orientation and many said they came out online first (O’Riordan & Phillips 2007).

It is also argued that these sites allow people who are curious and unsure about their sexual orientation to lurk and listen to ideas and debates that are not present in mainstream sites, and consider what they wish to do. While there is a growing visibility of gay sexuality in the scholarly literature, other non-heteronormative identities seldom feature, and certainly transgender is low on that agenda. In light of this, it is appropriate to address this gap and here I look at the usage of a South African transgender internet site, Gender DynamiX (GDX).

Defining basic terms

As my research into this usage is concerned with issues of sexuality, I draw on gender theory which critiques patriarchy as the dominant frame for gendered identity construction. Within the gendered order (Connell 1987) a particular form of strong masculinity is normalised and naturalised and complementary forms of femininities that enable such masculinity are too.

Thus at birth, people are inserted into society where this dominant masculinity is privileged and where female and male, and femininity and masculinity are viewed as oppositions. Dominant masculinity is flagged constantly – muscular, hirsute, strong, rational, less communicative, active, and in control. The emphasised femininities (in the plural) that complement this position are similarly validated - slight with hairless bodies, physically weak, emotional, communicative and nurturing, passive and supportive.

An important distinction is made by gender theorists between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, where sex refers to biological characteristics of male and female, and gender to those social and cultural ways of performing one’s gender that most people acquire unconsciously and through practice (Butler & Salih 2004).

Transitioning

For transgender people, transitioning implies the rejection of one’s biological or assigned sex (male or female) and can include undertaking physical interventions to achieve the opposed physical or sex identity. The accompanying and necessary gender transition requires acquiring the codes of practices associated with being masculine or feminine. In other words they face a particular challenge that requires them to work against the gender roles prescribed for their sex which they had to inhabit for, in some cases, many decades, and to take on those that are socially disapproved of for their sex.

To do this, they need to learn to ‘perform’ their gender not only through bodily deportment, clothing, but also gestures, ways of speaking - both in terms of expressions and tone and pitch - and ways of being in the world. It requires practice or constant rehearsal (much in the same way we all become incrementally gendered from birth) and for many who are, in their terms, ‘stealth’, it requires a safe and private space to do this.

The internet is potentially one such space that allows a person to be anonymous and to have control of how much they wish to disclose at any stage. One transgender person, when interviewed, described the internet to me as ‘literally a life-saver’.

While the account below is descriptive, I am aware that it is easy to read it as yet another set of narratives. Yet, for many transgender people life is fraught with social rejection and moralising from those who see sex and gender as divinely ordained and who view intervention in that process as suspect, even immoral and indefensible. GDX was the site of my research, unsurprisingly since the trans community in South Africa with internet access is not large, it has a relatively small number of members registered. Also, of the just over 1000 members, only a relatively small number post on the site.

GDX identifies itself as a human rights organization that promotes ‘freedom of expression of gender identity’ and advocates ‘for the rights of transgender, transsexual and gender non-conforming people’. It seeks to provide resources and support for trans people, their partners and families, as well as employers and the public.

My research looks at how transgender people, both male to female (MTF) and female to male (FTM) use the site. I undertook a critical textual analysis of the various threads over a period of three and a half months (9 October 2009 to 21 January 2010) in order to look for patterns and to classify them according to the themes that emerged.

I focus here specifically on two community forums, Girl Talk and Boy Talk, which have been set up specifically for MTF and FTM groups. As Boy Talk and Girl Talk were analysed separately while using similar but not identical categories, it was possible to identify similarities but also some striking differences between the two different community forums.

Boy talk

In spite of a much larger membership, the postings collected presented 25 threads with twenty active posters. Particular themes recurred in the threads and are thus indicative of their concerns. More than half (14 or 56% of the total) were concerned with various stages of physical transitioning to male, while three threads (12%) related to support either in the form of an offline meeting or web link suggestions. Two postings were related to sex and sexual orientation, one focussed on name and sex change registration, one queried tattooing as a rite of passage on beginning testosterone, or ‘T’ in their jargon, and two were postings by an outsider calling for article contributions.

Because of the complexity of transitioning and the length of time it takes, it is unsurprising that it is precisely these issues that predominate and all the stages of transitioning were raised in these threads.

Two were enquiries and consequent discussion of trans friendly counsellors (the initial stage) and doctors1; four were about testosterone (T) and hormone supplement regimes, costs and availability; three related to ‘top’ or ‘chest’ surgery (mastectomies); three were about final surgery (phalloplasty) where two announcements of impending surgery (one in Serbia) and one post surgery posting included a report on complications.

Two were direct queries about costs for all the above. Then beyond the focus on physical transitioning, one related to obtaining an identity document (ID), a crucial marker for trans identity.

Consistent with the attention given to these milestones, where self introductions occurred, the postings generally foregrounded the members’ status and stage of transition:

Ben2, who posted an ID type photo on his profile, introduces himself firstly in relation to his stage of transition, namely as on T and intending to have chest surgery. He is out about his status.

Similarly Fred posts a photo of himself and describes himself as transitioned (‘living full-time’) with his name as Fred on his ID document.

Mike describes himself as new to the site and hopes his ID will one day identify him by this name.

Brad describes himself as waiting to start T and hoping to be referred for chest surgery quickly thereafter.

The achievements of these various milestones are greeted in a distinctly celebratory way. Consider some of the responses:

When Fred announced that he had had his top surgery done, he was greeted with "Awesome man".

When Dave reported that his was scheduled, members applauded, "Hey dude, first of all CONGRATS" or "Congratulations".

When Phil let the group know he was up for his final or ‘phallo’ surgery, he is complimented for achieving this concluding part of the physical journey which is seen as "your dream come true" and met with admiration: "Well done brother", "That’s great", "Respek", "You will be so happy you will be smiling from ear to ear", and a more cautionary "Good luck".

This celebratory tone needs to be placed against the considerable obstacles that people have to overcome, something not foregrounded on Boy Talk but ever present:

Brad speaks of the reality of being transgender - he does activist work to "raise awareness about trans people and the pooh we have to go through!"

Elsewhere a member states, "Hopefully it will help us to be accepted as other ‘minority’ groups before us once were!"

Matt responds to a posting about trans-unfriendly medical professionals with reasoned counsel but notes, "this is not a journey for the faint hearted".

Brad recognises transitioning as a journey when he speaks of "being new to the site and still learning a lot each day. [It is] the road I am walking and getting closer to where I’m suppose[d] to be". Part of this journey relates to acquiring the appropriate gender codes, that is becoming masculine alongside becoming male.

One striking aspect of this relates to gendered language. Consider the way trans men address each other by frequently using words that are synonymous with ‘man’ to signal that the person being addressed is male and the forms of address are markers of being masculine. This ranges from "hey dudes", "awesome man!", "hey guys", "help a brother out", "bra" (as in my bra/brother), "keep in touch, man" to "ou" (an Afrikaans expression for a guy). Masculinity is thus repeatedly signalled and rehearsed in this way, suggesting a streetwise masculinity and a warm familiarity as well.

There are other ways that masculinity is signalled. When Matt suggested a regular get together his suggestions, while being humorous, are definitely not gender neutral, but laddish rather - comparing belly hairs, having a ‘braai’(the South African word, originally Afrikaans, for a barbecue), playing pool, maybe "lur[ing] them with porn". If this is laddish, it is indicative of a performance of behaviours and attitudes associated with dominant and heterosexual masculinity. In addition, the postings are generally short (often four or five lines), generally factual and less emotional or personal than on Girl Talk.

Girl talk

Not only were there more threads on Girl Talk at twenty nine, but there were more members posting at twenty six to the Boy Talk’s twenty. However, while the postings were different to those in Boy Talk in many ways, there is a crucial similarity and that relates to the focus on achieving milestones in transitioning.

Twenty of the posts foreground the processes of physical feminisation. Three of the posts were enquiries about endocrinologists and surgeons. The largest category - six of the posts (about 21% of them) - focussed on hormones (oestrogen and progesterone) and the consequent and desired breast development. A further four were concerned with hair removal and in these, it was facial hair that was specifically discussed. Three report-backs on gender reassignment surgery were posted and dealt with pain and fear, feminising facial surgery (FFS) was the focus of two posts, and another two topics focussed on ongoing feminisation generally in relation to hormones and post surgery.

Other than physical transitioning, three posts related to ladies clothing and shoes and therefore the socio-cultural expectations of being feminine. One related to "tucking" or hiding the bulge of male genitals, while the balance were variously linked to transgender. As in Boy Talk, the challenges of being transgender are not the focus of separate posts but incidentally flagged as in the recognition that "inevitably there will be some bigots". Challenges are not confined to bigots but result from widely held attitudes as Cary recognises. Her mother "is in denial" and "religion plays a large part" in her mother’s refusal to accept her position. Another member’s mother "freaked out" and Lynnie notes that a sex change is "definitely not for sissies".

If Boy Talk presented an overtly celebratory approach with members figuratively back slapping each other at reaching the various stages, this is markedly less pronounced in Girl Talk. On only two occasions the members announcing the commencement of hormones or surgery were congratulated. However support and empathy are evident and can be argued to be typical of feminine codes of conduct.

In contrast to the more truncated communications in Boy Talk, the postings are long. They describe and discuss their trans progress and articulate concerns and bad experiences in detail. Advice and reassurance are offered liberally with reference to the member’s personal experiences.

Consider one thread as an example. Cary posts about eventually beginning hormones. She speaks of her emotional state: she is "so scared now, I think my fear overpowers my excitement". She keeps on "thinking about all the complications that lie ahead":

"What am I going to do about work, what is everyone going to think of me, how am I going to tell my mom, what is my sister going to say, will I have my voice trained fully by then etc. etc. Hell I’m even worried about what the security guards at the entrance to my complex are going to think."

If these are her concerns, Cary also expresses determination in a stream of consciousness kind of way:

"I know I can do this and I know this is right, I just keep on getting these depressive thoughts like it’s all so much effort and it’d just be easier to off myself instead of carrying on with life, lol, I won’t give in to those thoughts either though."

After expressing her anxieties and feelings, she moves to getting concrete advice about hormonal changes and voice training. If her initial post is 36 lines, Maggie replies at length (58 lines), Cary picks up the thread again in a more optimistic vein (38 lines) but identifies concrete difficulties in relation to acceptance at work and home, Maggie generously provides more guidance again (35 lines), and there are two more expressions of support.

Moreover, the ways of addressing each other contrast markedly with the "dude" of Boy Talk and are consistent with the feminine codes of conduct naturalised under patriarchy. In the interchange referred to above, Maggie addresses Cary twice as "hon". On occasion a member is addressed as "girl" or "sweetie" too. This marks a tendency in naming women as soft, sweet and little, a kind of sugar and spice and all things nice routine.

Some posts end affectionately with ‘hugs’, again something absent in Boy Talk. Thus, an articulation of familiarity and affection is rehearsed in Girl Talk within the conventions of the dominant gender order. This was also evident in the aspects I identified above, namely the communicative practices of offering elaborate explanations and easy self-disclosure and expressing emotions whether anxiety or delight.

In addition there is some girl talk about the aspects of feminine appearance such as cleavage, hair removal and importantly clothing and makeup. Being able to ask questions about clothes, make-up and voice-training is highly relevant to their lives. The advice offered in one instance, to look at women around them and women’s fashion magazines, is also indicative of the apprenticeship they are all engaging in, performing the gender they have chosen and for which their childhoods and adolescences did not equip them.

Conclusion

This brief account of some of the tendencies in GDX’s Girl and Boy Talk highlights the concerns in the threads that weave together this transgender community. It is notable that the physical challenges and stages of transitioning (that is sex change) are found to be central.

For transgender people the sense of being female or male resides in the body in the first instance (and not merely in superficial appearance and dress as in cross-dressing) - hence the need for medical and surgical interventions. The body is thus the sine qua non of masculinity or femininity.

For trans men the accomplishment of physical manhood is celebrated as it achieves the physicality that underpins hegemonic masculinity.

For trans women, the anxieties around feminine physical appearance reflect the more general anxieties all women face in defining themselves as feminine, again in relation to hegemonic masculinity.

In addition, gendered aspects are rehearsed. The communicative styles of talk, the interests and the practices are explicitly masculine in Boy Talk and feminine in Girl Talk. For me, the outsider, this is striking precisely because it runs counter to their socialisation which groomed them in other ways of being gendered.

It would then be reasonable to anticipate that these older gendered ways of being would be more entrenched and evident. As I anticipated, transgender people I interviewed feel that it comes naturally to them as they are essentially the other sex or they attributed it to hormones.

To the contrary and in line with conceptualising gender as socially constructed, I argue that one of the challenges for trans people is precisely to learn to perform the gender they desire to have.

GDX enables this. It allows trans people to rehearse and enact their chosen gendered identities. It serves as a particular public sphere for a specific community whose members assume a non-heteronormative position and where patriarchal power and gender relations are variously negotiated.

While it is a non-heteronormative space in that people reject their assigned sex and gender, it is also ironically a space where the conventions and codes of practice of heterosexuality are enacted. Thus while it is designed to serve the interests of ‘gender non-conforming people’ it does not necessarily challenge the values or codes of practice of patriarchy.

The relationship of this trans community to the dominant gender order is thus multifaceted, nuanced and variable. Exploring and realising their chosen identities is similarly complex and complicated both for those who actively post and for those who lurk and ponder.

On the basis of this analysis (and this was confirmed in subsequent interviews), I argue that GDX and trans sites on the Internet more generally provide a critical space for engaging with concerns that are central to trans people, to provide support and solace, and also to serve as a site for trans people to hear these marginalised narratives and to assess the risks they might take. It is for these reasons that we need to be vigilant then that calls for censorship and surveillance do not result in regulations that curtail the freedoms of expression we anticipate in our democracies.

Jeanne Prinsloo
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Footnotes

1 All transitioning requires counseling prior to beginning the first stage of beginning hormones as advised by an endocrinologist.
2 All names are fictitious.


References:

Butler, J. & Salih, S., 2004. The Judith Butler Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Connell, R. (1987). Gender and power. Cambridge: Polity Press. Karl, I. (2007). On-/offline: Gender, sexuality and the techno-politics of everyday life. In K. O'Riordan & D. J. Phillips (Eds.), Queer online. Media technology & sexuality (pp. 45-64). New York: Peter Lang. O'Riordan, K., & Phillips, D. J. (2007). Introduction. In Queer online. Media technology & sexuality (pp. 1-12). New York: Peter Lang.