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Introduction

There is an unrelenting theme in the American popular imagination1 that

represents transsexual people as “Frankensteinian” characters that valorizes violence

against and the death of transsexualsi. These stories condense personal issues

relating to the identity politics of race, religion, sexuality, ability, and age, thereby

erasing other dimensions of lived experience and essentially emptying trans-

characters of identity, personality, and context; instead trans-people are portrayed as

“monsters” for public display. “High Theory” also tends to use transsexuals for their

liminal social positions. Judith Butler (2004), for example, upholds transgendered

people as true boundary “troublers” and develops theory using the gendered

embodiment2 of transsexual and intersexed people (who are born with ambiguous

genitals) in order to exemplify the tentativeness of identity categories (p. 121). What is

missing from both “high” and “low” discourse are the voices of transsexual people and

their lived experiences, therefore, this paper seeks to provide a sense of mediation to

the persistent argument over the bodies of transsexual people.

“High theory” refers specifically to a discourse that is distinctive from standard

daily disquisition. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu defines social distinction through the

possession of capital and habitus (embodiment) as expressed through “fields” (1984,

p. 144. 171); Bordieu’s theory of personal distinction and taste can be extended to

1
Popular is defined herein in terms of Webster’s (1996) lexical meaning “widely liked” (p. 531) and is
discussed through its expression in current media that is easily available to vast amounts of people,
easily interpreted (rather than theory which can be arduous to read), and produced in the twenty-first
century. The term imagination in this project is derived from mythology theorist Sven-Erik Klinkmann
(2002) and refers to the larger social patterns that emerge from a reading of certain media as they are
fabricated by positioning “different subjects in relation to the chains of signification that society creates"
(p. 56).
2
For argumentation and definitions of gender and sex, please review endnote i, which also defines
transsexuality. “Gendered embodiment” used here refers to the overwhelming encapsulation of
transsexual people in their bodies as representatives of gender and sex issues across academia and
within the popular imagination. There is seemingly no escape from their liminal embodiment.

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artifacts of culture. High theory is a distinctive form of writing that produces cultural

capital through an idiosyncratic body of knowledge that is usually deployed in

academia; high theory almost always positions ideology above practicality, which also

makes it distinctly different from low discourse. Judith Butler is the high theorist

discussed in this paper. She is known for her “analytical complexity” and according to

Vicki Kirby (2006) in Judith Butler Live Theory, she is “one of the most prolific and

influential writers in the academy today” whose work “spans philosophy and

contemporary theory” (p. vii). There is a certain reverence of Judith Butler in the

Gender Studies graduate program at Indiana University Bloomington, and it is this

veneration that makes her an attractive exemplar for examination within this paper.

While current gender theory provides a plethora of information to scholars

about the gendered lives of transsexuals, perhaps there is no wider reaching audience

than that of popular television. Richard Campbell (2003) claims that as of ten years

ago more than ninety percent of American households had one or more television sets

(p. 173); now more than 48 million households have digital cable service. In fact, one

study showed that American children between the ages eight to eighteen watch three

or more hours of television per day and found that more than 60% of programs

contain violence (Schmidt 2006, p. 290). This fact will become more important in a

“deep reading” of transsexuals in the popular imagination. Media is an important

omni-present artifact of the twenty-first century because it has proliferated to the point

where it can be referred to as a social institution in its own right.

Julie D’Acci (1997) in her article “Television, Representation, and Gender”

argues media produces both “viewers and citizens” with shared ideals, world views,

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and narratives that all work together to structure a popular imagination where “the

social construction has come to stand in for an imaginary original reality” (p. 373, 375).

Television literally produces and reproduces distinct images, which can be read as

texts, made available to masses of people promoting a certain standard embodiment

of humanity. It is television’s very location in the “masses” that associates it with the

pejorative lowliness of the “common” people as opposed to the “lofty” high theory of

scholars like Judith Butler. Despite the often deleterious scrutiny that analysis of

artifacts from “popular culture” elicits, it is the wide reaching affect of television that

calls for a critical analysis of transsexuals in the popular imagination.

The danger with the popular imagination is that these inauthentic social

institutions, found in television for example, are often reproduced indefinitely creating

an almost unitary world—a Baudrillardian “hyperreality”—that is determined solely by

mass mediated images where the reproductions become more “real” than original

lived reality (Baudrillard, 1994). People can become so involved with television, for

example, that the obsession spills over into real life and viewers adopt the social

norms as their own3. So, the “popular” imagination is “widely available” and produced

within a certain hegemonic system “representing the general population” (Webster,

1996, p. 531), but may portray too narrow a canon to accurately represent people who

are placed outside the hegemonic norm because of their “non-normative” bodies.

3
Media produces image in many ways and through many means, including in and through music. To
demonstrate that people sometimes live their “hyperreal” (fake is real) fantasies what follows are two
well known historical examples from the music industry. In 2004 the BBC News did a follow up story on
the murder of John Lennon by crazed fan Mark Chapman; he told the parole board in 2004 that he
murdered Lennon to “steal his fame” (BBC NEWS, 2004). Wikipedia (2006) also cites that on May 7,
1991 a judge in the state of Georgia dismissed a wrongful death lawsuit against singer Ozzy Osbourne
filed by a “local couple [who] believed their son was inspired to attempt suicide by Osbourne's music.”

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This paper seeks to illuminate the hyperreal unification of transsexual people

for what it is: a way that hegemony subjects often disempowered people to a dominant

legible paradigm. Exploring the ways that transsexuals are imagined in this

postmodern mediated but shared cultural space, this paper is divided into four parts

using the metaphor of the body. The introduction provides readers with an overview

of terms used in this paper. “Embodied Transsexuals” contextualizes the lives of

transsexuals through memoirs and scholarship written by trans-people, and also

through the close reading of a documentary entitled TransGeneration (2005). The

documentary follows four college students who are in different stages of their

transformations relaying that transsexuality is not the fundamental identity for each of

these young students, especially for people who are also marginalized by poverty,

race, and differing abilities.

“Disembodied Transsexuals” discusses the overwhelming violence that is

thematicii throughout the popular imagination as evidenced in the “deep reading” of

prime time CBS television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. This section

specifically discusses the ways in which transsexuals are subjected to social

oppression due to persistent homophobia. “The Conclusion” elaborates on some of

the “in-fighting” between theorists on the subject of transsexuality in an effort to

indicate the strengths and weaknesses these arguments. There is a similarity in the

portrayal of trans-characters in “high” theory and “low” culture that seems to leave out

the experiences of transsexuals themselves. Readers of high theory and viewers of

“common” television are thus presented with an incomplete representation of what

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transsexuality is. Incomplete representations are very close to what transsexuals are

already self-subjected to by feeling “non-normative” and born incomplete.

Embodied Transsexuals
“I want my body to match my mind.”
-Gabbie, MTF, U.C. Boulder Colorado student, TransGeneration (2005)

“I feel like a woman in a man’s form.”


- Richard Von Krafft-Ebing, p. 21, Psychopathia Sexualis (2006)

It is clear from a review of both current and historical literature that transsexuals

know they are “wrong bodied” from their earliest memories. Elizabeth Grosz (1994) in

Volatile Bodies claims that one’s body “is a betrayal of and a prison for the soul,

reason, and mind” (p. 5), and perhaps no people feel this sense of entrapment more

than transsexual people who must seek medical treatment to bring their bodies in line

with their minds. While their very physical identity is shaped by medical intervention,

transsexuality has also become pathologized through psychological discourse.

Transsexual’s bodily imprisonment has become a “condition” or disorder through

normative structures in the culture, but also through the authority of “objective”

science.

Judith Butler (2006) writes that humans become known through “conditions of

intelligibility” that are constructed by “a certain regulatory regime” which posits what is

considered normal in terms of a hegemonic power “composed of [those] norms” (in

Stryker, p. 183). Human bodies are pivotal as to whether or not a particular human

being is able to be recognized as deserving of “personhood”; Judith Butler (2004)

argues bodies are themselves the “criterion by which we judge a person to be a

gendered being, a criterion that posits coherent gender as a presupposition of

humanness” (in Stryker, 2006, p. 184). Humans then are clearly “read” as either men

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or women leaving transsexuals “unintelligible” in this scheme. These notions of what

constitute “normal” and “abnormal” are then repeated indefinitely in the larger culture

and are pathologized within psychological and medical discourse.

The “pathologization” of transsexuals has a historical background in early

medical discourse and Susan Stryker (2006) in The Transgender Studies Reader

points to Psychopathia Sexualis as one source that may have introduced the word

“transsexual” into medical language. The early characterization of the term connects

transsexuality to an abnormal condition, which now defines all “people seeking to

access gender reassignment therapies” (Stryker, 2006, p. 40); David Cauldwell

(1886), the writer of the case study, explains transsexuals as sexually deviant people

with “a pathologic-morbid desire to be a full member of the opposite sex” (p. 40).

Today, this “affliction” is fully instituted in the DSM IV (1996) and listed under Gender

Identity Disorder which is defined by two criteria: first a “strong and persistent cross-

gender identification, which is the desire to be . . . or the insistence that one is . . . the

other sex. . . . [and] evidence of persistent discomfort about one’s assigned sex (p.

532, 533). The pathological nature of transsexuality and its location in a model of

medical illness or disorder leads to mixed discourse about the subject in academia.

Some scholars argue for the delisting of gender identity disorder for its

essentialist notions of right and wrong in terms of gendered bodies; however, Vivanne

Namaste (2005) indicates that such a removal will inevitably make it “impossible to

pay for sex reassignment surgery either though a private insurance company or

through state/provincial health insurance” (p. 7, 8). The issue of insurance masks the

reality that the majority of Americans lack proper health coverage: the National

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Coalition on Health Care (2006) estimated that one third of the population was without

health care in 2003 alone (electronic resource). The fact that one must almost always

be employed to get health care in America is further complicated by intersectional

forces at work that seem to advance the marginalization of certain people. Race,

although a contentious word4, is part of the intersectional identities that place certain

bodies as texts outside of the normative to be read as either legible or illegible by

others, but so too is ability and economic class.

For Raci, a MTF5 student at UCLA, her position as a Philippino is just as central

to her life as her marginal economic position and her (dis)ability as a deaf woman. In

the documentary TransGeneration (2005), Raci is extremely insecure about her voice

because she is deaf but more so about her poverty and lack of resources, which leads

to her body insecurities. Raci has difficulty maintaining her hormone regime which

gives her “great breasts, smooth skin, and a great figure” because she is unable to get

hormones for lack of insurance coverage (Simmons, 2005); she then turns to the

streets to acquire drugs illegally and is clearly afraid that she will be poisoned, but her

desire to “fit in,” to avoid “stereotypes,” and to “pass” trumps all fear (Simmons, 2005).

Raci eventually locates a large queer resource center in Los Angeles that purchases

hormones for poverty stricken transsexuals, including those living on the streets, and

her hormonal intake is restored safely.


4
In this paper race is defined as a socially constructed state of being that intertwines both phenotypical
expressions defined as “different” from the normative with an oppressed and marginal position in a
hierarchical social structure. Race was developed mainly (though not solely) to give scientific credence,
or to lend a sense of authenticity to, social stratification. Racial differentiation was developed and
maintained in an effort to justify the economic exploitation of minority groups, such as Native and
African Americans, by those at the top of the social hierarchy (Hunter, 2005, Alland, Jr., 2002,
Frederickson, 2002, Marable, 2000). Race also justifies inhumane crimes against individuals who are
“other” that the dominant Caucasian paradigm. Such crimes are exemplified in the past through slavery
and lynchings, but “hate” crimes still occur today.
5
MTF is an abbreviation for a transsexual who has transitioned from male to female.

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The very fact that the queer resource center disperses the hormones to needy

individuals associates Raci’s transsexuality with gay and lesbian politics, which are

determined by labels that center on the sexuality of or homosexual partner choices of

people rather than within a more central paradigm. This queer standard that posits

transsexuals as recognizable only through the lens of gay or lesbian politics is

deleterious according to Viviane Namaste (2005), a Canadian transsexual scholar, for

its “lack of respect for the lives of [transsexuals] who are heterosexual” (p. 20).

Namaste privileges essentialist points of view, because they allow the focus of

scholarship and activism to be taken off trans-bodies and placed back on institutions.

She wants to be considered a woman, not a gender radical (Namaste, 2005, p. 6).

Lucas, a FTM6 student from Smith College, in TransGeneration (2005), underscores

Namaste’s view: “When I identify as trans it validates that I am abnormal. I don’t want

to be seen as a trans-person” (Simmons, 2005). Each of these trans-people wants to

be seen as “normative” women and men whose genders and bodies are not the locus

for a movement toward social change.

Being read as normal is possibly what makes one safe from a myriad of events,

like marginalization or even violence, therefore it is entirely understandable why some

—if not most—transsexuals want their bodies to reflect a sense of normalcy.

Anthropologist Mary Douglas claims that symbolic ritual creates societal unity (Beynon

and Dunkerley, 2000, p. 470); people in the culture at large recognize “the powers and

dangers credited to social structure [which are then] reproduced in small on the

human body” (Beynon and Dunkerley, 2000, p. 470). Social unity then is created

through the construction of signifiers like gender norms, which are then played out
6
FTM is the abbreviation for a transsexual person who has transitioned from female to male.

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through dress and behavior. As Douglas indicates with her theory of the sign, these

two markers for gender in America can make individuals normative or non-normative,

and therefore safe or not-safe. It is understandable that people may tend to gravitate

toward the safety of social norms.

To participate in the normative gender structure unifies people under the larger

system and allows citizens access to the “benefits” of such a system. However, it is

unclear whether transsexuals are ever really allowed to reach a state of normalcy. In

her address to conference participants at the 27th annual National Women’s Studies

Association (NWSA), Susan Stryker spoke of the myriad ways in which her life as a

trans-woman is affected by hegemonic norms:

If I am perceived as a woman I am subject to misogyny. I am subject to


homophobia because I am not a normative man. My transgendered body
visually disables me through other’s perceptions of me. I am
psychopathologized by Gender Identity Disorder, so I have a mental illness. I
am an undocumented worker at risk due to the refusal of a United States
Identification Card. I am surveiled, profiled, and repeatedly discriminated
against for housing and daycare. [Stryker, June 17, 2005]

Despite wanting to pass and lead “normal” healthy lives, transsexuals due to the

liminal positions of their bodies are subject to discrimination on multiple levels like lack

of access to housing, employment, and other necessary social resources.

Hausman (1995) writes transsexuals must “seek and obtain medical treatment

in order to be recognized as transsexuals,” therefore, much of the understanding

about them is located within a medical discourse (original emphasis, p. 3). Indeed, the

young transsexual people in the documentary TransGeneration (2005) all worried

about access to proper medical care, specifically hormones, to make their sex and

gender reassignments work. This medical discourse focuses on the bodies of

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transsexual people, and subjects them and everyone else to a hyper-awareness of the

constructedness of their existence.

Stryker (2006) in My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of

Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage confides that she is “too often perceived

as less than fully human due to the means of [her] embodiment” (p. 245); thus due to

the “unnatural” state of her body and the rage of her exclusion from mainstream

society she feels a kinship with “Frankenstein the monster” (p. 245). While Stryker is

making a literary move in her metaphorical kinship with the monster, the popular

imagination literally makes transsexuals into monsters.

Disembodied Transsexuals
“The Transsexual body is an unnatural body.”
-Susan Stryker (2006) The Transgendered Studies Reader, p. 245

“We are not the monsters.”


-“Tranny” character, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, episode 8, Season 5 (2004)

Transsexuals appear on non-cable television only on rare occasions and are

more visible with token appearances on cable television shows, like Nip/Tuck on the

FX Network or in HBO’s The L Word. Exhaustive searches for representations of

transsexuals on prime time (non-cable networked) shows lead to one episode of CSI:

Crime Scene Investigation, which is one of America’s most watched shows currently in

its seventh season of production (Official CBS website, 2006)7. CSI is a version of the

classic “whodunit” entertainment genre, but episodes focus upon figuring out how

crimes are committed using the latest forensic technologies as a means to discover

who committed the crimes. The particular episode under scrutiny here is the one

7
This claim is based upon Neilsen ratings, which track audience participation in television shows to
“maximize profits” for networks (AGB Neilsen Media Research online, 2006).

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hundredth, entitled “Ch Ch Changes8,” episode eight of season 5 (2004). TV.com

(2006) indicates that “31.46 million viewers tuned in” to this particular episode in

particular “making it the most watched episode in the show's history thus far”

(electronic resource). It is peculiar that the producers picked such a contentious

subject matter as transsexuality and “monster madness” to mark their centenary

episode.

“Ch Ch Changes” opens with a terrified woman speeding down a dark deserted

road in a very nice convertible. Time lapses, but within one minute from the actual

beginning of the show CSIs are on the scene looking down at the dead body of the

same terrified now dead “Wendy” whose throat and genitals have been slashed. In a

moment of foreshadowing one agent makes the comment that “women in convertibles

are low hanging fruit,” while the other jokes “and it was a top down night” (Zuiker,

2004). These statements set the joking nature of the episode and are purely

metaphorical allusion to the fact that the victim Wendy is a trans-woman, although her

alterity it is not revealed until the autopsy in the next scene.

Later investigators discover the decomposing body of Vern, another trans-

woman, in a storage unit turned operating room. Over her body, which was still naked

on the table in stirrups, one CSI asks, “Catherine? What do you think went on here?”

Her reply, “Someone outsourced their health care to the wrong provider.” It turns out

that “Frankensteinian” Dr. Mona Lavelle had been performing illegal gender

reassignment surgeries to help “normal people live normal lives” (Zuiker, 2004). The

crime is resolved when the CSIs discover that Wendy, the first victim, was killed

because she found “Frankenstein’s lab” and was on her way to inform police. The
8
The title of the show refers to the song by David Bowie “Changes.”

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show closes with one last allegorical jab at transsexuals: “Before man crawled out of

the primordial muck, perhaps it had the same option and maybe we were supposed to

be able to switch sexes. The mutation may be staying one sex” (emphasis mine,

Zuiker, 2004).

The body of Wendy (photo from Official The body of Vern (photo from Official CBS
CBS website, 2006). website, 2006).

The premise for the show is to solve a crime, but the running theme is the

atrocity of transsexuals who are implicated as either “abnormal” or homosexual in

nearly every scene in an ironic contrast to the statement of Dr. Lavelle who wants

transsexuals to be seen as “normal.” In the spirit of “actions speak louder than words”

transsexuals are made into monsters by their very embodied constructedness, but

also in their perceived connection to homosexuality. Throughout the show the CSIs

investigating the crime indicate a persistent fear of transsexuality expressed in

homophobic and trans-phobic jokes. “For the record,” exclaims one agent, “I really like

having a penis,” as if someone—the audience, his co-workers—are reading him as

less of a man by his very involvement with people who are constrained by their

penises.

There is also a persistent refusal throughout the episode to call transsexuals by

the gendered pronouns of their choice; essentially these acts by the show’s main

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characters rob the already liminal characters of any agency in the expression of their

identities constraining them to a firm “biological sex by birth” paradigm. Actors rely on

heterosexual principles to elicit information from potential witnesses teasing men who

refuse to speak to the CSIs as perhaps “preferring stick” and refusing to follow

“traditional values” (Zuiker, 2004).

Investigators actually find the “butcher” (murderer) by testing semen found in

the mouth of the victim Wendy. This leads to the “shocking” moment when

investigators find out that Dr. Lavelle is a trans-woman who has not yet had “bottom”

surgery—a moment of parallelism alluded to in the foreshadowing “top down night”

declaration earlier in the episode. The CSIs then interview Lavelle’s husband and

repeatedly marginalize him for being homosexual by highlighting his wife’s penis with

jokes like “your wife is still packing” and eventually make him repeatedly admit to

several different investigators that he enjoys fallating his wife (Zuiker, 2004). The

agents in making Lavelle’s husband repeat this information were playing up his non-

normative and read as homosexual behavior. Because this was the most watched

episode of CSI to date viewer’s comments are important to contextualize this episode

within the popular imagination.

One viewer lauded CSI for “informing the general public” about a “unique group

of people,” however, this episode was overwhelmingly caste as the “goriest and most

difficult to watch” by viewers (TV.com, 2006). The show was not difficult because of

the political marginalization of transsexuals, but because of the overwhelming

violence, blood, and “the descriptions of sexual acts and transference of certain body

fluids” (TV.com, 2006). Insinuated in the nuance of this viewer’s comment is his

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discomfort that the transference of “particular bodily fluids” was from one man to

“another”—even though the characters considered themselves heterosexual. Most

(re)viewers from TV.com agreed that topics about trans-gendered and transsexual

people need more media coverage, but they also agreed that this episode was a step

in the right direction. This show was disturbing on many levels and not at all helpful in

making trans-people more legible or visible in popular culture. The transsexual

characters, living and dead, in this episode were robbed of their agency by illusion

politics.

FTM Matt Kailey (2005) in Just Add Hormones is perhaps too positive in his

declarations that transsexuals are more visible now than ever in the media (p. 13).

The show seemingly participates in the “good deed” of increasing the visibility of

transsexuals in prime time television but in a deep reading it is obvious that the show

erases their complex lived experiences through continual marginalization in the show’s

focus on trans-sexualities—or the emphasis on trans-character’s “same sex” partner

relations—but also in the repeated refusal to acknowledge trans-character’s desired

gender pronouns. Additionally, perhaps in an effort to make the show more palatable,

the “monster” Dr. Lavelle was played by a “real” woman, non-trans actor Lindsay

Crouse, whereas no attribution is given to the dead transsexuals Wendy or Vern,

although through flashbacks their characters are quite developed. Similarly,

numerous “real” “tranny” characters appear in the show but none are listed in the DVD

credits. This projects the illusion that “all is right” in the “real” world.

This method of erasing the complexity of transsexual’s lives through physical

and metaphorical violence and homophobia may be a response to what Namaste

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(2006) in Genderbashing calls an “invasion” of public space by non-normative people

(in Stryker, p. 588, 589). Because transsexuals are non-normative in the expression

of their gender9 they are perceived as a threat to normative societal structures.

Namaste (2006) claims that many transsexuals are victims of violence due to the

conflation of their gender identities (how they identify themselves) into a perceived

homosexual (same sex partner relations) reading, which threatens the heterosexual

norm (in Stryker 2006, p. 587); she argues that both public and private spaces are

policed by gender norms upholding “the binary opposition between men and women”

that is intimately intertwined in the ideology of the heterosexual paradigm (Namaste in

Stryker, 2006, p. 590). People who fall outside of the socially sanctioned standard for

gender are targeted for violence because they threaten the structured state of

heteronormative behavior.

Susan Stryker attributes the perceived danger of her presence in public spaces

to be due to the “unnatural” medical construction of her body, while Judith Butler

posits that the incoherent gendered nature of transsexuals makes them “illegible” thus

less human (Butler, 2004, p. 58; Stryker, 2006, p. 245); perhaps this illegibility makes

transsexuals more susceptible to hate crimes. In any case, even when transsexuals

are heterosexual (attracted to the opposite gender than their trans-identities) their

gender is often conflated with a perceived sexuality10 that falls outside of normative

behavior making them prime targets for violence. Since gay bashing conflates two

separate issues—gender and sexuality—into a problem focused on abnormal sexual

behavior, Namaste (2006) advocates for the renaming of the term “gaybashing” to

9
Gender here refers to explicit roles and behaviors attributed to men and women based upon their
“biological sex.”
10
Sexuality here is defined by the partner choices of people in sexual relationships.

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“genderbashing” (p. 596). The term “gay” bashing deflects the fact that violence

against gay, lesbian, intersexed, and transsexual people is really rooted in the

apparent destruction of gender norms within the heterosexual paradigm: it is a gender

crime, not a sexual crime (Namaste in Stryker, 2006, p. 596).

CSI participated in the conflation of gender and sexuality issues by repeatedly

making homophobic jokes and alluding to the non-normative sexual choices of

witnesses, especially men, to coerce them into answering questions about the crime.

The trans-characters were living their lives passing as “normal” people before the

CSIs insisted upon pigeonholing them into a homosexual paradigm due to their non-

normative sexual practices ultimately forcing gender incoherence on viewers. Further,

the show made a mockery of Dr. Lavelle’s husband and their “farcical” marriage by

insisting that he describe their intimate sexual relations again conflating gender with

sexuality in a politics of illusion where sexuality trumps or becomes gender.

Another form of illusion politics in CSI is evident in the writing of Dr. Lavelle as

a Frankenstein character. While illegal and unlicensed medical practices are unethical

and dangerous, the fact is that gender reassignment surgery is truly expensive. Dr.

Lavelle was providing a service to people who could not afford to “legitimately”

transform their bodies by establishing her own “outside” medical practice, which was

construed as the laboratory of a “mad” doctor. Kailey (2005) writes that female to

male surgery including “chest reconstruction, a complete hysterectomy, and a

complete phalloplasty” can cost up to $100,000 in the United States (p. 77). This

figure does not account for the lifetime of hormone intake required to regulate and

maintain gender reassignments. Not everyone with “Gender Identity Disorder” can

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afford “treatment”; therefore alternate means of transitioning can seem attractive in

light of the overall monetary cost.

Transitioning is not a matter of choice, argues FTM Kailey (2005), “if the

incongruity between a person’s gender identity and his or her body and social roles is

strong enough, he or she will transition or die” (p. 20). While Kailey does not provide

sources for his claims, he states that many transgendered suicides are due to

suffering and shame in not being able to transition; access to adequate medical care

is a central issue in the transsexual community, and often insurance does not cover

gender transitions (Kailey, 2005, p. 21). Recalling that Raci from the documentary

TransGeneration (2005) turned to the street to acquire illegal drugs in an effort to

maintain her hormone treatment it becomes evident that transsexuals will participate

in risky behavior to assimilate with the “regulatory regime.” This in no way excuses

fictional Dr. Lavelle from her criminal behavior, but the fact that CSI chose to collapse

the lived reality of transsexual’s inadequate access to the medical industry into a

dramatic portrayal of “Dr. Frankenstein plays God” indicates that transsexuality has a

long way to go before it is normalized in mainstream media.

Conclusion
Gender theory about transsexuals is inevitably a debate couched in discussions

based mainly on and about the bodies of hyper-gendered people. The bodies of

transsexual people are hyper-gendered because of the emphasis discourses place

upon their gendered states of being above all else; therefore, perhaps there is no

more liminal space than a transsexual’s body due to the minimizing and/or essentialist

viewpoints asserted by feminist and gender theorists in terms of the transsexual state

of being. Bernice Hausman (2000) writes “while transsexualism may seem to

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transgress what we think of as traditional gender roles, the practice of ‘sex change’

relies on normative recountings of gender as an ontology” (p125). This gender

philosophy is the essence of juridical debates over the bodies of transsexuals which

ultimately decide for them whether or not they deserve full “personhood” based upon

their “legibility” (Butler, 2004), which sometimes can manifest itself in the inability to

get identification cards or driver’s licenses.

Transsexuals must seek assistance from both the psychological and medical

fields to feel a sense of self recognition, but also to achieve full personhood in the

culture at large. These theories and discourses place transsexuals in no-person’s

land without a safe space in which to seek refuge: one is either “illegible” or too

constrained by their choice of legibility. Current American television also has a hand

in reducing transsexuality to a state of being that is “not quite right,” which often ends

in a crescendo of violence upon the bodies of transsexuals. Prime time television

programs like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation relentlessly empty the social and

medical realities that transsexuals face in the hegemonic “regulatory regime” and

instead depict trans-people as “Frankensteinian” characters—monsters or mad

doctors—who threaten the heteronormative status quo.

The popular imagination condenses personal issues erasing all other

dimensions of lived experience like race, sexuality, ability, age, and economics

constructing trans-characters (and the trans- actors themselves) as monsters that are

absent identity, personality, and context. Trans-people are displayed and used for

their liminal positions. This lack of historical context and judgment due to the

Thomas-Williams 18
constructedness of the transsexual embodiment is also evident in the work of highly

regarded gender theorist Judith Butler and also in the work of Bernice Hausman.

Hausman (2000) refers to transsexuality as a sort of “antidote” to the “coercion”

of the cultural institution, but is critical of the process; she writes (1995) that

transsexuals are failed “gender outlaws” who reify the hegemonic binary (p. 197).

While gender reassignment adheres to a too essentialist state of being for some

theorists, others posit that the liminal space trans-people reside in can (and should) be

used actively as another sort of antidote to hegemony. Butler (2004b) argues that

one’s liminal embodiment could be used as a political strategy and can “become a site

of contest and revision” complicating the necessity of gendered identities, or identities

at all, which are only “instruments of the regulatory regime” (p. 121, 126). In the

privileged refusal to acknowledge the impending violence read in the non-normative

identities of transsexuals these scholars are accused of participating in colonization of

the “other.”

Viviane Namaste (2005) in Sex Change, Social Change: Reflections on

Identity, Institutions, and Imperialism asks frankly “where would Judith Butler be if she

couldn’t talk about us [as privileged sites of identity] (p. 18)? High theorist Butler

argues that being a transsexual is powerful in its liminal state, because just as Mary

Douglas argues “all margins are dangerous” (Beynon and Dunkerley, 2000, p.473).

People who open up spaces beyond the boundaries of normative social structures are

disrupting or “troubling” norms revealing the very constructedness of those social

norms, thus the argument can be made that transsexuals are gender pioneers.

Alternately, moving transsexuals toward the center and away from the fringes by

Thomas-Williams 19
embracing essentialist binary oppositions liberates trans-people from their liminal

positions destroying the argument that transsexuals are somehow gender pioneers.

Transsexual bodies are used to promote a certain agenda, whether it is to uphold the

hegemonic heterosexual paradigm or through a theoretical destabilization of gender

norms; therefore by reinforcing the destruction of essentialist arguments and keeping

transsexual people liminal rather than central, high theorists privileged with an ability

to “pass” when necessary are participating in marginalizing behavior.

Namaste questions Judith Butler’s intentions and reads her as intentionally

colonizing the lives of transsexuals to promote her own agenda of social change. In

privileging the alterity of transsexuals some theorists ignore the substantive issues in

the lives of trans-people; Namaste (2005) argues “when we restrict ourselves to the

identity of sex change, we simultaneously limit our understandings of social change”

(original emphasis, p. 18, 19). In much of her work Namaste promotes activism in the

medical industry over the effectiveness of theoretical argumentation in order to

increase access to and the quality of health care for transsexual people. She is critical

of any anti-essential argument; in the refusal to disrupt the binary, she argues,

essentialists are doing effective activist work implying that Judith Butler does not do

effective work (Namaste 2005, p. 8; Namaste in Stryker 2006). However in her almost

violent rejection of Butler, Viviane Namaste seems to be misreading Butler’s argument

about identity.

Judith Butler rejects identity as a reductive organizing principle and promotes

“troubling” norms in general as a political move toward social change (Butler, 2004, p.

121, 135); therefore, for Namaste to indicate that Butler relies upon the identities of

Thomas-Williams 20
trans-people undergoing sex change as a theoretical position is incorrect. Rather,

Butler is merely indicating that transsexualism “proves” the inherent malleability and

instability of gender as an immovable stable identity (Butler, 2005, p. 120). One could

criticize Viviane Namaste for her persistent refusal to acknowledge that millions of

people cannot get access to health care despite the presence of an ever expanding

health care system. Health insurance usually hinges on employment which, according

to Susan Stryker (NWSA, 2005), is also difficult to attain and retain for transsexuals.

Clearly, there is much work to be done by gender, transgender, and feminist

theorists of every camp. Although it is helpful to be critical of theoretical works,

criticism to spite the work of others seems antithetical and unnecessary to the “cause,”

which is proliferating knowledge and access to knowledge. There is a tentative link

between “high” theory and “low” (television) culture in that both presume to “know”

transsexuality, yet in a practice of illusion politics they both tend to erase the lived

experiences of transsexuals leaving readers or viewers with a partial picture of what

transsexuality is and what it means to the people who are marginalized by such labels.

In an effort to better illustrate the “either illegible thus political/or too essential”

nature of current gender theory and popular culture, this paper has delineated some of

the persistent critical issues in the lives of transsexuals, namely marginalization,

oppression, violence, and identity misconceptions, to explore the ways in which the

bodies of transsexual people are “read” in both places: high theory and low culture.

This is not to minimize the gendered experience of transsexual people, but to expand

upon their embodied experiences to provide a legible “text” that more fully represents

Thomas-Williams 21
transsexual people as lived beings with experiences beyond their gender or

representations of gendered identities.

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i
Transsexuals are people who live their lives in the opposite gender role, which is outward expression of
embodiment as a man or a woman, as their original sex assignment—the reading of their male or female
genitals at birth as the biological expression of gender—due to an overwhelming feeling that they were born into
the “wrong” body. Transsexuals take hormones and get surgery (if it is affordable) to more closely align their
bodies with their desired sex (the biological expression of gender).

Sex and gender are often used interchangeably in literature. For example, one of the many surgeries
transsexuals often undergo is “bottom surgery” or “sex reassignment” corresponding to a transformation of
genitals from one manifestation (penis) to the other (vagina). Other writings use the term “gender reassignment”
in discussions about transsexuals perhaps indicating more than just surgery to the genitals: this terminology may
in fact include the switching of social roles from that of male to female. It is very difficult to maintain a difference
between gender reassignment and sex reassignment, for example, as there is slippage between the terms.

For the purposes of this paper, sex is the “biological” manifestation of a male or female expressed in genitals,
penis or vagina, and phenotype (bone structure, body hair texture, voice octave, and other physical
manifestations said to be embodied by either men or women). Whereas, gender is a social or cultural
manifestation of sex; accordingly, John Money (1995) writes gender is the expression of “general mannerisms,
deportment and demeanor” usually in accordance to biological sex which helps to “write” a person as either male
or female (p. 21). All of these terms are particularly limiting.

ii
There is a dearth of fictional literature written about transsexuals, and after exhaustive research looking for
popular fiction about transsexuality or featuring trans-characters, two novels were reviewed: Trans-sister Radio
(2000) by John Bohjahlian Invisible Monsters (1999) by Chuck Palahniuk writer of Fight Club. These two novels
are polemic in their overall messages. Not applicable here for many reasons, but often mentioned by queer
theorists and gender novelists is Stone Butch Blues (1994) by Leslie Feinberg.

This novel is clearly about one woman’s journey toward an identity she can reconcile herself with, which ends up
to be he-she or “stone butch,” and the perils associated with being located outside of a socially normative
identity. It is not about transsexuality though it has been highly criticized as so by transsexual scholar Viviane
Namaste. Although the main character wrestles with many identity issues and even begins the transition from
women to man, she eventually ceases the hormone therapy in her acceptance of her woman body. While
Namaste (2005) via Transsexual scholar Max Valerio read the departure from creating a male body to keeping a
female body as negative, it can be read it as a brave exploration of identity (p. 19). The author never reaches a
gender finality as claimed by Valerio and Namaste, but imagines a world where one is possible.

There is a scarcity of information on transsexuality at all let alone in popular American media, but there are
several recent (21st century) mass produced films for central (not interstitial) audiences including The Badge
(2002), Transamerica (2005), and Normal (2003). Also produced recently is the horror of a film Soldier’s Girl
(2003), which is based on the true story of Calpernia Addams an MTF and her relationship with a soldier who
was brutally killed in 1999 due to that relationship. Few documentaries are available although several featuring
Transsexuality have been made, therefore, for the purposes of this paper I reviewed TransGeneration (2005)
and Unhung Heroes (2002).

Finally, if there is little popular literature or film featuring transsexuals there is even less television focusing on
people located (by others) outside of a very rigid binary of “male or female born.” Therefore, after exhaustive
searches of many internet and DVD databanks Season 3 of The L Word (2005), CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,
episode five, Season 5 (2004) and Nip/Tuck, season two (2004) were reviewed which all feature transsexual
characters. Finally, for the sake of comparison or contrast of the imagined realities to actual lived experiences
numerous memoirs written by transsexuals were reviewed.

Similar themes emerged from readings of these artifacts of popular culture, but unrelenting in all of them (even in
the more positive books and movies) was the comparison of transsexuals to monsters. Rather than produce a
paper that shallowly reviews numerous representations of transsexuality in the popular imagination, the focus is
on one artifact in particular to produce a close reading of transsexuality. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2004),
episode five, “Ch Ch Changes” is representative of all artifacts reviewed because it encapsulated every
imaginable theme throughout the many books, television shows, and movies that were reviewed.