Volume 42, Number 6: November/December 2008

Getting Past Identity: A Fresh Look at Issues in Transsexuality

Review: Sex Change, Social Change: Reflections on Identity, Institutions, and Imperialism

by Viviane Namaste
Women’s Press, 2005

In this collection of short essays, letters, interviews and speeches, Viviane Namaste addresses what she finds to be a central problem in the current body of work on transsexuality: the framing of trans issues in terms of identity. According to Namaste, this focus has served to erase the lived experiences of transsexuals and has curtailed any substantive discussion of the social and institutional conditions through which they experience oppression. In much feminist and transgender literature, transsexuals have been cast as gender revolutionaries, burdened with the goal of the subversion of binary sex. As Namaste demonstrates, this approach has served to obfuscate the everyday experiences of transsexuals by framing their lives in the terms of a pre-existing theoretical framework. Instead, Namaste finds that, “Transsexuality is about the banality of buying some bread, of making photocopies, of getting your shoe fixed,” as these are the very real contexts in which transsexuals experience discrimination.

As Namaste observes, in a Canadian context the discussion of trans identity has revolved around the case of Kimberley Nixon, a transwoman denied the opportunity to volunteer with a women’s shelter due to her biological sex. In feminist analyses of this case, the questions posed have largely addressed whether or not a transwoman is a “woman.” Namaste, however, collaborating with George Sitara, provides a different approach. Rather than providing answers in the confines of the established discourse of inclusion/exclusion, Namaste and Sitara bring forward a new set of questions, challenging the conceptions of both gender and the state invoked during the Nixon case.

Throughout this collection, Namaste utilizes the criminalization of transsexuality as a lens through which to understand the institutional barriers faced by trans persons. This criminalization has taken many forms, ranging from explicit prohibitions against cross-dressing to the regulation of sex work, an occupation in which many transsexuals are engaged. As Namaste’s work highlights, the involvement of transsexuals in sex work has been overlooked in much of the mainstream transgender literature, which has had two important consequences: it negates the gains made by transsexuals in this arena in terms of raising awareness and acceptance, and ignores the needs of those most precariously situated.

While Namaste is critical of the work of transgender activists in securing access to health care – finding that many of these individuals are complicit in the privatization of healthcare by appealing to insurance to provide these services – she takes perhaps too positive a view of the institution of medicine itself. Much of this volume is concerned with the extent to which transgender movements further imperialist ends via the endorsement of goals that promote a largely white, middle-class ethos, so it is perhaps surprising that she does not explicitly address medicine as being implicated within the projects of empire. Invested with the power to classify, name and diagnose, medicine constitutes a powerful apparatus of the state; yet Namaste seems largely concerned with accessing medicine, rather than transforming it.

Namaste’s approach to her subject matter makes this work accessible to those unacquainted with the current body of work on transsexuality. For those already engaged with this literature, it is an important intervention in current discussions on transsexuality in Canada. Namaste is certainly correct in finding that too much theorization of transsexuality has occurred in the absence of any understanding of the lived experiences of trans persons. This does not mean, however, that this kind of work should be abandoned; instead, it must become attentive to the material conditions in which transsexuals live.

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