Academic journal article Theory in Action

Liminal Spaces and the Transgender Experience

Academic journal article Theory in Action

Liminal Spaces and the Transgender Experience

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

This research explores the experiences of a sample of gendernonconforming individuals who are attempting to achieve gender independence in a society that dictates gender identity based on genitalia and a rigid binary conception of male/female and woman/man. The expression of alternative forms of gender often meets with disdain and in some instances, violence. Individuals who change gender rules and refuse to conform in socially prescribed ways of gender expression often fall somewhere between female or male. In other words, they enter a liminal space. The term liminality was first coined by Victor Turner based on his field research in Zambia during the 1950s. We argue that at least for a time, some gender non-conforming individuals experience liminality as they transition from one gender identity to the other. Others may embrace this space and still others accept their liminal status with at least some amount of trepidation (Nestle, Howell, & Wilchins, 2002, pp. 98-99). For the purposes of this research project, liminality refers to an in-between status or what occurs before/during gender identity transition. In some cases, transitional liminality may result in a personal transfonnation that is helped along by ritual processes and the formation of supportive communities. In other cases, more permanent, socially imposed liminality may produce insecurity and/or vulnerability; especially for individuals who exhibit ambiguity in their gender presentation and may or may not be transsexual.

We examine the experiences of a non-random sample of 21 individuals who identify with the transgender community but may not necessarily be transgender. For example, several participants identified specifically as genderqueer but not transgender. One young woman, Olivia, identified as 'cisgender' which is technically a term for people who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth. However, she also identified with the transgender community in that she liked to play with her gender and explore other ways of "being." Her gender expression/presentation is somewhere in the middle of the gender binary and her sexual orientation is bisexual. Borrowing from Bornstein (1994), Olivia might just be a "gender outlaw" as are some of the other individuals who shared their stories with us. For the purposes of this study we apply the term transgender to every gender category not covered by the words man, woman, female, and male. Borrowing from Stone's categorizations (1991) we include the following in our working definition of transgender: transsexuals, transvestites, cross-dressers, individuals with an intersex condition, individuals who have chosen to perform ambiguous social genders, and people who have chosen to perform no gender at all.

During the time of the interviews, some of our participants were in varying stages of physical transition while others were coming to tenus with complex identity management issues that did not involve surgical/hormonal intervention. Some participants were attempting to step outside of the gender binary and identified in either bi-gender or multi-gender ways. Others chose to transition from either male to female (MTF) or female to male (FTM) and integrate into society by adhering to traditional ideas about sex and gender. The stories they share provide an opportunity to understand how a sample of gender non-conformists make sense of the world as they achieve and manage their identities.

Of particular interest to the researchers is the exploration of how individuals who do not conform to normative gender rules negotiate their identities either with the help of surgical/hormonal intervention or by moving between gender categories in pursuit of gender freedom. Transgender individuals are often in-between traditional binary gender labels or they may inhabit 'outside boundaries' of what is defined as male and female in Western culture. Many transsexuals make a break with existing gender expectations resulting from their sex at birth and forge new identities based on who they really are. …

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