Marjorie Garber, "Spare Parts: The Surgical Construction of Gender," in H. Abelove, Michčle Aina Barale, & David M. Halperin, eds., The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. Ch. 21. Routledge 1993: 323-325.

On Transvestites and Transexuals

The Absolute Insignia of Maleness

Can you imagine the effect you will have on your partner as you enter a room in the most elegant of feminine attire right down to these European stretch pantless pantyhose! These "surprise pantyhose" will complete your web of intrigue as you slowly raise your skirt to that delectable area where "lo & behold" your male member will be anxiously awaiting introduction. (ad for Surprise Pantyhose, Crossdressers Forum)

Let me begin this inquiry by citing the views of an expert, one of the most widely respected interpreters of gender identity today. Dr. Robert Stoller, a psychoanalyst and professor of psychiatry at UCLA, is the author of numerous books and articles on gender dysphoria, including Sex and Gender Volumes I and II, Splitting, Perversion, Sexual Excitement, and Observing the Erotic Imagination. Here, from the influential first volume of Sex and Gender, is a passage widely quoted in both medical articles and TV-TS (transvestite-transsexual) journals, describing the mechanism of transvestite behavior:

The whole complex psychological system that we call transvestism is a rather efficient method of handling very strong feminine identifications without the patient having to succumb to the feeling that his sense of masculinity is being submerged by feminine wishes. The transvestite fights this battle against being destroyed by his feminine desires, first by alternating his masculinity with the feminine behavior, and thus reassuring himself that it isn't permanent; and second, by being always aware even at the height of the feminine behavior—when he is fully dressed in women's clothes—that he has the absolute insignia of maleness, a penis. And there is no more acute awareness of its presence than when he is reassuringly experiencing it with an erection. (Stoller, Sex 1:186)

Almost twenty years later, Stoller repeated this assertion—in much the same language:

[T]he transvestite states the question, "When I am like a female, dressed in her clothes and appearing to be like her, have I nonetheless escaped the danger? Am I still male, or did the women succeed in ruining me?" And the perversion—with its exposed thighs, ladies' underwear, and coyly covered crotch—answers, "No. You are still intact. You are a male. No matter how many feminine clothes you put on, you did not lose that ultimate insignia of your maleness, your penis." And the transvestite gets excited. What can be more reassuringly penile than a full and hearty erection? (Stoller, Observing 30)

Stoller's narrative style is both sympathetic and empathetic, adopting the affective subject position of the transvestite ("reassuringly experiencing it with an erection"; "reassuringly penile"; "a full and hearty erection"). In the earlier passage, the phrase "absolute insignia of maleness" is implicitly ventriloquized, the transvestite's eye-view given in indirect discourse; the later passage puts the equivalent phrase, "that ultimate insignia of your maleness," firmly in quotes, as "the perversion," an allegorized voice of Transvestism, is permitted to speak for itself. In both, however, and thus over a span of two decades, Stoller points to the primacy of the penis as the fetishized self-object of transvestite subjectivity. "The transvestite needs his penis as an insignia of maleness," he writes elsewhere in Sex and Gender. "One cannot be a male transvestite without knowing, loving, and magnificently expanding the importance of one's own phallus" (1: 188; emphasis added).

I have used Stoller as my chief evidence here because he is the most frequently cited of gender identity specialists. But he is far from alone. A vast medical literature exists on this question, overwhelmingly confirming the phallessentialist description of male transvestism and transsexualism.1 Nor do we have to have recourse to doctors to test this hypothesis. Any pornographic bookstore or magazine stand will attest to the same facts: on page after page of magazines for male transvestites like Great Pretenders, Transvestite Key Club, Petticoat Power ("Like Father, Like Son"), Meet-a-Mimic ("Gorgeous Fun Loving Guys") and Crossdressers' Forum, photographs, both illustrations and "personals ads," depict transvestites in panties, garter belts, maids' uniforms, boots and chains, each with naked, erect, and prominently displayed cock and balls. The Stoller scenario of reassurance as potency—which is clearly indebted to the Freudian scenario of fetishistic display ("Fetishism" 149-59)—is visible or readable in every chapter of Mario in Makeup and Bobby's New Panties. What is the gendered subjectivity of these representations?

It is not clear to me who reads these novels and magazines, but statistically, we know, male transvestites are largely middle class, heterosexual, and married. Their wives frequently belong to TV support groups, and join them on cross-dressed weekends in Provincetown and other, less obvious locales. Transvestites, cross-dressed, choose women's names, which they use in their personals ads, and also in their daily or episodic cross-dressing activities. Their wives will address them as "Donna" or "Jeanne" or whatever, when they are wearing women's clothes. Yet this is clearly not "female subjectivity," even though it goes by women's names. It is a man's idea of what "a woman" is; it is male subjectivity in drag. The discourse of reassurance is the manifestation of what Adler called "male protest": despite the female clothing and nomenclature, the male transvestite asserts his masculinity. As Stoller puts it in the passage quoted above: "The transvestite fights this battle against being destroyed by his feminine desires, first by alternating his masculinity with the feminine behavior, and thus reassuring himself that it isn't permanent; and second, by being always aware even at the height of the feminine behavior—when he is fully dressed in women's clothes—that he has the absolute insignia of maleness, a penis" (Stoller, Sex 1: 186). Paradoxically, then, the male transvestite represents the extreme limit case of "male subjectivity," "proving" that he is male against the most extraordinary odds. Dressed in fishnet stockings, garter belt, and high heels, or in a housedress, the male transvestite is the paradoxical embodiment of male subjectivity. For it is his anxiety about his gendered subjectivity that engenders the masquerade.

And what of the transsexual male? By the same reasoning, the male transsexual—the person who believes that he is a "woman trapped in a man's body"—marks the other pole of male subjectivity. For him "[t]he insignia of maleness is what causes his despair. He does not wish to be a phallic ‘woman’; he wishes to be a biologically normal woman" (Stoller, Sex 1: 188). But in this case too the "insignia of maleness," present or absent, desired or despised, is the outward sign of gendered subjectivity. Erections, says Stoller, "force a sense of maleness" upon the transsexual; "the more intensely excited the organ is the more his need to be rid of it" (188).

The desire "to be rid of " the penis, by surgical or less permanent and costly means, has led to some ingenious arrangements. Thus in his youthful cross-dressing forays, the transsexual Richard Raskind, later to become Renee Richards, regularly stretched his penis backward between his legs to hide it, binding it with heavy adhesive tape, and used the same tape to tuck his testicles up into his abdomen. Over the years, Richards writes,

I became more and more strict in this regard, increasing the strains and inventing new ways to eliminate the hated body parts. Sometimes I would knot a piece of fishing line or strong twine around the head of my penis and use that to pull it backward between my legs. The other end would be secured to a piece of rope cinched tightly around my waist . . . I could pass the string between the cheeks of my ass and up under the rope. Then I would pull the string taut causing my penis to be stretched brutally around the curve of my torso. Believe me, I have great respect for the resiliency of the human penis. (56-57)

The male-to-female transsexual's obsessive concern with "the absolute insignia of maleness" as a mistaken sign or a false signal of gender identity is based on the same conviction instrumental to the male transvestite: the conviction that masculine identity, male subjectivity, is determined and signified by the penis. Interestingly, this is the case even after sex change surgery has removed the unwanted organ. Thus Jan (formerly James) Morris, the travel writer whose autobiography, Conundrum, is subtitled An Extraordinary Narrative of Transsexualism, offers her account of her own transformation from the penile point of view:

A neurotic condition common among women is called penis envy, its victims supposing that there is inherent to the very fact of the male organs some potent energy of spirit. There is something to this fancy. It is not merely the loss of androgens that has made me more retiring, more ready to be led, more passive: the removal of the organs themselves has contributed, for there was to the presence of the penis something positive, thrusting, and muscular. My body then was made to push and initiate, and it is made now to yield and accept, and the outside change has had its inner consequences. (152-53)

Seldom has "function follows form" been more ardently argued in gender terms. Whatever we may think of the politics (or psychology) of this statement, it unmistakably gives rise to the same overdetermination of the penis that has characterized both the male transvestite and the male-to-female transsexual in the examples I have considered. In fact, the transsexual male represents the other extreme limit case of "male subjectivity" as it is constructed in Western culture. For the phallus is the insignia not only of maleness but of sexuality as such. Rather than regarding the penis (or the phallus) as incidental equipment contributory towards a general sense of "male subjectivity" that transcends the merely anatomical, both male transvestites and transsexuals radically and dramatically essentialize their genitalia. "The absolute insignia of maleness" is for them the index of male identity. Male subjectivity in this case is objectivity. And what I am suggesting is these apparently marginal or aberrant cases, that of the transvestite and the transsexual, both define and problematize the entire concept of "male subjectivity." It is by looking at them, and at the cultural gaze that both constructs and regards them, that we can best test out the viability of the term.