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Transnormativity: A New Concept and Its Validation through Documentary Film About Transgender Men

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While prior research has called attention to how medically based, normative understandings of sex and gender place undue restrictions on transgender people's autonomy, there has yet to be an attempt to consolidate this research into a recognizable concept that is situated within existing theoretical frameworks. This article uses documentary films focused on transgender men as an empirical example to develop the concept of transnormativity. Transnormativity describes the specific framework to which transgender people's presentations and experiences of gender are held accountable. Drawing on research specific to transgender community groups, medicalization, and legal transition, I argue that transnormativity structures transgender experience, identification, and narratives into a hierarchy of legitimacy that is dependent upon medical standards. This ideology, as I show via a content analysis of documentary films, circulates in media depictions of transgender people in ways that eclipse alternative explanations of gender non-conformity. While medical transition is a central component of many transgender people's gender trajectory, I argue in this article that the privileging of the medical model over others creates a marginalizing effect for gender-non-conforming people who cannot or do not wish to medically transition.
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Transnormativity: A New Concept and Its Validation
through Documentary Film About Transgender Men*
Austin H. Johnson, Kent State University
While prior research has called attention to how medically based, normative under-
standings of sex and gender place undue restrictions on transgender peoples autonomy,
there has yet to be an attempt to consolidate this research into a recognizable concept
that is situated within existing theoretical frameworks. This article uses documentary
lms focused on transgender men as an empirical example to develop the concept of
transnormativity. Transnormativity describes the specic framework to which transgen-
der peoples presentations and experiences of gender are held accountable. Drawing on
research specic to transgender community groups, medicalization, and legal transition,
I argue that transnormativity structures transgender experience, identication, and narra-
tives into a hierarchy of legitimacy that is dependent upon medical standards. This ideol-
ogy, as I show via a content analysis of documentary lms, circulates in media
depictions of transgender people in ways that eclipse alternative explanations of gender
non-conformity. While medical transition is a central component of many transgender
peoples gender trajectory, I argue in this article that the privileging of the medical
model over others creates a marginalizing effect for gender-non-conforming people who
cannot or do not wish to medically transition.
West and Zimmermans (1987) doing gender theory, the now dominant
sociological perspective on gender, positions gender as an accomplishment of
social interaction rather than an innate or biological component of the self. We
are gendered, according to West and Zimmerman, only insofar as we accom-
plish gender within interaction. This accomplishment of gender is contingent
upon our accountability to normative situated standards for gender presentations
that cohere with assigned sex categoriesthat is, masculinity with perceived
maleness and femininity with perceived femaleness. Individuals, according to
the doing gender perspective, are not gendered per se, but are continuously
doing gender within interactions by participating in gendered behavior accord-
ing to the normative standards and accountability structures in which they are
situated.
Using documentary lm focused on the identity development and experi-
ences of transgender men as an empirical example, this article develops the
concept of transnormativity, which I dene (Johnson 2013) as the specic
Sociological Inquiry, Vol. xx, No. x, 2016, 127
©2016 Alpha Kappa Delta: The International Sociology Honor Society
DOI: 10.1111/soin.12127
ideological accountability structure to which transgender peoples presentations
and experiences of gender are held accountable. As it is used in this article,
transgender, or trans (used interchangeably), refers to individuals whose gender
identities are incongruent with their sex assigned at birth. Transnormativity, as
this article demonstrates, is a hegemonic ideology that structures transgender
experience, identication, and narratives into a hierarchy of legitimacy that is
dependent upon a binary medical model and its accompanying standards,
regardless of individual transgender peoples interest in or intention to under-
take medical pathways to transition. This ideology, as this analysis shows via a
content analysis of documentary lms, circulates in media depictions of trans-
gender people in ways that eclipse alternative explanations and experiences of
gender non-conformity, especially those that do not conform to a medical
model. While medical transition is a central component of many trans peoples
gender trajectory, this article shows that the privileging of this model over
others creates a marginalizing effect for gender-non-conforming people who
cannot or do not wish to medically transition.
Transnormativity
Prior research calls attention to how binary, medically based, and norma-
tive understandings of sex and gender affect trans peoples experiences of com-
munity, health, and legal recognition. Yet, there has not been an attempt to
consolidate this research into an overarching conceptualization situated within
existing theoretical frameworks. Reviewed later in this article, research shows
that trans people are subject to medicalized regulatory standards placed on their
identities in their interactions within community groups, health care, and legal
settings. This research shows that trans people, both those who undergo and do
not undergo medical transition, are held accountable to medicalized narratives
of gender non-conformity across social contexts and institutions (Johnson
2015a). Thus far, the research on community, health care, and legal settings
has not been connected and the assumptions in the literature appear to be that
it is the characteristics of the settings themselves that are regulatory. Rather
than thinking of the settings as regulatory, I argue here that community, health
care, and legal settings among others should be understood as conduits of
transnormativity, a regulatory normative ideology that structures interactions in
every arena of social life.
As a regulatory normative ideology, transnormativity should be understood
alongside heteronormativity (Berlant and Warner 1998; Ingraham 1994; Warner
1991) and homonormativity (Duggan 2003; Seidman 2002) as both an empow-
ering and constraining ideology that deems some trans peoples identications,
characteristics, and behaviors as legitimate and prescriptive (e.g., those that
adhere to a medical model) while othersare marginalized, subordinated, or
2 AUSTIN H. JOHNSON
rendered invisible (e.g., those that do not adhere to a medical model) (Jackson
2006; Rich 1980). For individuals who do adhere to a medical model of trans-
gender identity, transnormativity simultaneously afrms the legitimacy of their
gender identity and restricts their access to gender-afrming medical care. For
individuals who do not adhere to a medical model of transgender identity, char-
acterized by the rejection of binary gender embodiments or the rejection of
medical interventions, transnormativity marginalizes and at times eclipses their
experiences, restricting their access to gender afrmation in interactions with
both transgender and cisgender people and institutions. As it is used in this arti-
cle, cisgender, or cis (used interchangeably), refers to, at the individual level,
individuals whose gender identities are congruent with their sex assigned at
birth. At the institutional level, cisgender or cis should be understood as an
institutional space that was designed for and privileges cisgender people and
cisgender experiences of gender.
Gender and Accountability
In the same ways that cisgender peoples gender identity and experience
are held to specic sociocultural standards of masculinity and femininity, trans-
gender individuals are held accountable to gendered norms surrounding lan-
guage, mannerisms, dress, behavior, and other social markers (Connell 2010).
These gendered characteristics for both cis and trans people are either validated
or sanctioned by social institutions and actors around them according to how
well they do gender (West and Zimmerman 1987).However, in addition to
accountability to hegemonic standards of sex category and gender, trans people
are also held accountable to transnormative standards that are specic to trans
people as a group. Transgender masculinity and femininity overlap with cisgen-
der masculinity and femininity more generally. However, within trans commu-
nities and specic to trans people, there exist additional structures of
accountability that are enforced by members of the trans community (e.g., sup-
port groups, community media, public gures) and the gatekeeping institutions
(e.g., trans healthcare practitioners, identication distributing institutions such
as the department of motor vehicles or local court systems) that police trans as
a stand-alone identity. Those studying trans communities show that transnorma-
tive standards can affect trans peoples experiences via local, corporeal bodies
(e.g., partners, friends, community members) or the representation of those bod-
ies in social discourse (e.g., documentary lm, transgender studies literature,
diagnostic criteria) (Gagne and Tewksbury 1998, 1999; Gagne, Tewksbury, and
McGaughey 1997; Schrock 1996; Schrock, Holden, and Reid 2004; Schwalbe
and Schrock 1996).
As it is developed in this article, transnormativity is an ideology that struc-
tures trans identication, experience, and narratives into a realness or trans
TRANSNORMATIVITY 3
enough hierarchy that is heavily reliant on accountability to a medically based,
heteronormative model (Bornstein 1995; Chen 2010; Ekins 2005; Langer 2011;
Mog and Lock Swarr 2008; Spade 2008). Transnormative ideology creates and
sustains the social, medical, and legal arrangements within which trans people
are held accountable to trans-specic sets of standards, enforced by both trans
and cis people. These standards are most reliant on, but are certainly not lim-
ited to, adherence to a medical model of transition that emphasizes a born in
the wrong body discourse and a discovery narrative of trans identity (Hines
2007, 2009; McBee 2012; Mock 2012; Prosser 1998; Stone 1992). Transnor-
mativity operates as an accountability structure for trans identication and
experience, regardless of specic individualsintent to medically transition. As
Hollander (2013) writes, accountability to hegemonic standards of identity and
experience is ubiquitous and ongoing regardless of individual acknowledgement
or investment. Transnormative accountability extends to transgender people,
both binary (e.g., man or woman) and non-binary (e.g., genderqueer, agender,
or bigender), and persists regardless of intent to medically transition. Lucal
(1999) writes, [g]ender is pervasive in our societyand individuals cannot
choose not to participate in it(p. 791). Put another way, even if people
choose not to meet gender expectations, they can hardly help responding to
them(Hollander 2013, p. 7). For transgender people, whose gender-afrming
social interaction, health care, and legal documents are distributed according to
a medical model, responding to the medical model is a necessary part of daily
life.
While cis peoples gender presentation and experience are policed accord-
ing to unwritten sociocultural norms that are not tied to ofcial sanctioning
mechanisms, medicalization creates a positive test for evaluating trans identity
and experience within social, medical, and legal settings. This positive test
requires evaluation by medical professionals and is enforced by structures of
accountability such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disor-
ders (DSM), the World Professional Association for Transgender Health
(WPATH), and the state and federal laws that restrict legal identity afrmation.
Transnormativity and its accompanying accountability structures, such as the
medical model of transition enforced by the DSM and WPATH, require indi-
vidualsaccomplishment of trans identities in formal and informal interactions.
Failure to do so restricts access to gender afrmation in medical, legal, and
social institutions for trans people who do and do not wish to pursue medical
intervention.
Transnormativity in Medical Settings
Within medical settings, transnormativity manifests in its gatekeeping
effects that restrict transgender autonomy and regulate access to gender-
4 AUSTIN H. JOHNSON
afrming medical care for trans people desiring medical intervention (Butler
2006; Feinberg 2001; Hale 2007; Keller 1999). For many trans people, diagno-
sis is a central step in their transition process. However, those who wish to
receive the diagnosis must meet certain requirements, specically the diagnostic
requirements outlined in the medical model of trans identity presented by the
DSM (APA 2013). That is, a medical professional must determine that the indi-
vidual is indeed the gender they claim to be and thus assign a trans identity,
via a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, to that individual before they receive rec-
ommendation to proceed with medical and legal transition.
The medical model of trans experience is best dened as the American
Psychiatric Associations framing of gender non-conformity as a psychological
condition [...] that requires medical treatment, including gender afrming sur-
gery or hormone therapy(Koenig 2011, p. 619). Situating trans experience
and identity within a medical model creates a normative process of becoming
transgender that requires trans people to produce a biography wherein they
have exhibited signs or symptoms of gender non-conformity throughout life
that in turn have caused them emotional distress (Bolin 1988; Cromwell 1999;
Denny 1992, 2006; Namaste 2000; Spade 2003). In using the medical model to
understand trans experiences, the American Psychiatric Association not only
denes the terms of the experience but also regulates who has access to gen-
der-afrming medical care and what that care will entail. Budrys (2012) writes
of the medical model in the contemporary American healthcare system:
If the patients complaint cannot be veried through observable indicators and symptoms,
then the problem not only cannot be identied, but, more to the point, it cannot be treated
using scientically grounded practice patterns. (p. 57)
By placing trans experience within a medical model situated within con-
temporary health care, gender-afrming intervention becomes contingent on
adherence to standardized symptoms rather than personal identication of
gender.
The essentialist, symptom-based model of trans experience creates the
trope of trans people being born in the wrong bodysimilar to the born this
way trope of lesbian and gay experience (Bennett 2014; Walters 2014)and
deters any alternative narrative of gender identity as uid, emergent, processual,
or constituted by social norms and inuence (Butler 2006). What is more, by
placing trans authenticity as dependent upon diagnosis and subsequent medical
intervention, transnormative ideology does not allow for transgender volition
and instead relies on a discovery narrative characterized by realizing or nding
out one is transgender. That is, there exists very little room for trans peoples
faculty or power to use their own agency in making decisions about their iden-
tication with and actualization of their individual gender identities.
TRANSNORMATIVITY 5
Transnormativity in Legal Settings
Transnormativity also affects the legal identity recognition available to
trans people (Keller 1999; Koenig 2011; Lee 2008; Romeo 2005; Spade 2003,
2008). Trans men and women seeking legal transitionwhich allows trans peo-
ple to secure gender marker change on ofcial state and federal documents,
access to public restrooms, and eligibility for sex-segregated social welfare pro-
gramsare required to obtain a formal court order declaring their newly
assigned sex category. Most states require proof of surgical reconstruction and
anatomical coherence be provided before the state will recognize a trans per-
sons gender identity (National Center for Transgender Equality 2013). That is,
in order to be legally recognized and afrmed as men and women, transgender
people are held accountable to a medical model of identity that requires medi-
cal interventions. Not only does this legal requirement limit transgender peo-
ples self-determination but it also determines the legal denition of gender and
sex category for all people. As Keller (1999) argues, if our medico-legal sys-
tems have the authority to grant gender to individuals, then those same systems
have the authority to determine what exactly that gender will look like and
how it will operate in society.
In addition to identication distribution, transgender people are also held
accountable to a medical model within the criminal justice system as individu-
als are housed according to their legal and thus genitalia-based sex. In order to
be housed according to their personal and authentic sex identication, transgen-
der people must be legally classied as such. Extensive research has been con-
ducted on the negative physical and mental health effects of classication
protocol for and treatment of transgender women in criminal and immigrant
detention facilities (Conrad and Spade 2012; Stanley and Smith 2011). In the
case of criminal and immigrant detention, transgender peoples social experi-
ences of gender are held accountable to a narrow denition that is reinforced
by a medical model of transgender identity and experience.
Transnormativity in Community Settings
Research from data collected in the 1990s showed that, at the time, mem-
bers of transgender community groups engaged in accountability practices that
were deeply reliant on the medical model of transgender identity and experi-
ence (Gagne and Tewksbury 1998, 1999; Gagne, Tewksbury, and McGaughey
1997; Schrock 1996; Schwalbe and Schrock 1996). These studies suggest that
trans people may enter community groups with unstable identities but those
identities then become legible and solidied through the interactional practice
of narrative formation (Schrock 1996; Schwalbe and Schrock 1996). That is,
trans peoples understanding of their gender identity and sex category is argued
6 AUSTIN H. JOHNSON
to be at least partially reliant on the narratives of meaningful others who have
come before them. The narratives of meaningful others in trans community
groups teach new members how to scan their biographies for evidence of a
differently gendered true self’” (Schrock 1996, p. 176). Self-narratives may
not always be historically accurate accounts, but their importance does not lie
in their objective truth. The importance of narratives of a trans self lies in their
meaning to the community and the way they are used as transnormative stan-
dards against which trans experience is measured. Further, trans people not
only learn how to narrate their experiences but they learn the proper emotional
response to those narratives and may even internalize them as a part of their
understanding of self (Schrock, Holden, and Reid 2004). Other research sug-
gests that the internalization of transnormative narratives of self may be due to
trans peoples social marginalization (Gagne and Tewksbury 1998, 1999;
Gagne, Tewksbury, and McGaughey 1997). Given transgender peoples
overwhelming rejection by cisgender people, the promise of tting in and being
accepted by other transgender people is highly valued, and the norms
that structure this newly discovered community become importantto
new members who feel that those norms deserve conformity(Gagne and
Tewksbury 1998, p. 97).
These transnormative community accountability practices require transgen-
der community members to engage in acts of self-observation and self-report-
ing(Schleifer 2006; p. 58) that reafrm medical authority. The existing research
on trans community interactions suggests that trans peoples understandings of
their identities, narratives of self, and relationships to their embodiments are con-
structed according to a medical model and trans people are sanctioned, ostracized,
or pushed out of community groups when they fail to conform. Accountability to
a medical model is most visible in the collective creation of a normative transgen-
der narrative equally invested in a proper early trace of transgendered [sic] con-
sciousness as much as in a future gendered arrival(Chen 2010; p. 202). While
community narratives that align with a transnormative medical model may in fact
be accurate accounts of some transgender peoples experiences, not all transgen-
der people identify with the medical model or require medical interventions.
Thus, reliance on a medical model at the expense of others is argued to be a dis-
service to trans community building in that it creates an unspoken hierarchy
(Bornstein 1995; p. 67) that positions trans people who do not align with a medi-
cal model as not transenough because of lack of surgeries or hormones(Mog
and Lock Swarr 2008, np).
Transnormativity inuences trans peoples identities and experiences inter-
nally via trans community groups and interactions and externally via the gate-
keeping institutions that restrict access to medical and legal gender afrmation.
As the research cited above demonstrates, once trans individuals encounter
TRANSNORMATIVITY 7
transnormative accountability structures such as medical and legal authorities or
community groups, they not only learn the transnormative standards of the
community but also how to narrate and thus pass along those standards to other
people. Meaningful others within and surrounding trans communities both offer
and regulate narratives regarding trans experience and identities that model
transnormative beliefs about gender over the life course. Narrative accounts of
trans identity and experience thus work to create and sustain transnormative
social and cultural understandings of what it means to be a person of trans
experience. This is true for trans people who wish to undergo medical interven-
tion and those who do not, those who identify with a binary gender system and
those who do not (Nestle, Howell, and Wilkins 2002). These social and cultural
understandings can then be used as tools for regulating the identities and expe-
riences of all trans people, regardless of their alignment with a transnormative
model, thus creating a feedback loop of transnormative reinforcement.
Documentary Film and Transgender Intelligibility
Many studies investigate the ways that documentary lm impacts identity
development and self-concept for LGBT youth. Grays (2009) ethnography of
queer and trans youth in a rural area shows how deeply imbedded media is with
gender-non-conforming identities of young people. The trans youth in Grays
study not only use media representations to compare identities but they model
their identity narratives on those presented in documentary lm. Grossman and
Daugelli (2006) also report that trans youth are heavily inuenced by media por-
trayals and many of their participants cite the media as their introduction to the
existence of trans people. Other studies report that media representations increase
the well-being of gay and lesbian youth if they are positive because they provide
role models and inspiration related to coming out, self-acceptance, and well-being
(Bond 2015; Gomillion and Giuliano 2011). Neither Bond (2015) nor Gomillion
and Giuliano (2011) include trans people in their studies, yet many of the social
stigmatization and identity processes experienced by LGB individuals are also
experienced by trans people. Further, Gray (2009) and Grossman and Daugelli
(2006) suggest that trans young peoples relationship to the media is similar to
that reported in the studies of gay and lesbian youth.
This project specically analyzes documentary lms that are readily avail-
able to and thus have the capacity to inuence the perception of a wide range of
trans and cis individuals. Social and cultural documentaries operate as a distinct
type of media representation for transgender individuals. In addition to their
attempt at a representation of transgender realness (Halberstam 2005), documen-
tary lms share a common goal of affecting the audiences evaluation of and ori-
entation to the social phenomenon they claim to represent (Plantinga 2005). One
lm scholar describes documentary lms as instrumental,arguing that these
8 AUSTIN H. JOHNSON
lms exercise power by changing consciousness, by their deliberate attempt to
alter their viewersrelationship to a subject by contextualizing it in the proffered
time, space and intellectual eld of the lm(Godmilow and Shapiro 1997, p.
82). Documentary lms, much like the self-narratives of meaningful others in
support group environments, act as conduit for self-narratives circulating in and
through these marginalized bodies, identities, and communities. Gray (2009)
writes of the power of documentary lms relative to trans experience: Because
tropes of objectivity, science, and public service frame our reception of docu-
mentaries, they occupy a privileged site of truth and revelation(p. 147). That is,
documentary lms covering transgender phenomena act as stand-ins for the real
life experience of being transgender. Additionally, because there are a signicant
number of documentaries focusing on transgender identity and experience, they
offer a seemingly diverse portrait of trans experience.
Data and Methods
The following analysis employs documentary lm as an empirical example
of transnormative ideology and focuses on the ways in which documentary
lms reinforce transnormative understandings of identity and experience.
Specically, I conduct a content analysis of nine documentary lms that claim
to represent transgender men, or transgender people who were assigned female
at birth and now identify as male. Transgender men, transgender women, and
transgender people who do not identify with a binary gender system differ in
the relationship to their gendered body parts and the types of gender-afrming
medical care privileged by each group, the effects of gender-afrming medical
care on their gender presentation and experience, and the gendered expectations
placed on them before, during, and after transition. A conceptualization of
transnormativity must certainly include the experiences of transgender women
and non-binary transgender people. However, I believe that transnormativity
would operate differently for different transgender identity congurations and
should therefore be examined separately. This article focuses on transnormative
narratives in circulation surrounding transgender men.
Of the nine lms selected for this project (Table 1), six were chosen from
a list of transgender-related documentaries compiled by the Web site Trans-
Academics.Trans-Academics is designed to provide educational and commu-
nity resources for those with an academic or personal interest in the spectrum
of gender identities(Trans-Academics 2012). The site acts as a hub for schol-
ars, community members, and interested individuals in that it provides resource
lists of existing literature and cultural productions, transgender-related research
tools, transgender studies program listings, and community announcements.
The Web site offers a list of documentaries on its page for Educational
Resources. The list on the Web site at the time of this study included ten lms
TRANSNORMATIVITY 9
that focused primarily or exclusively on transgender individuals assigned
female at birth. Of the ten lms listed on Trans-Academics, four were unre-
leased to the public for purchase or viewing. The six lms that were available
for public viewing or purchase were included in my analysis. The six lms
selected from the Web site ranged in production date from 1997 to 2006.
While limiting my sample to the lms listed on Trans-Academics would
ensure that the lms selected were familiar to a wide range of individuals, I
conducted a more extensive Internet search for lms featuring transgender men.
In conducting my own extensive search for documentaries I found six addi-
tional lms featuring transgender men, bringing the total number of lms to
sixteen. Of the additional six lms, three were unavailable for public viewing
or purchase. Guided by the tenets of theoretical sampling (Glaser and Strauss
1967), I added the three remaining lms to this list. These added lms included
Becoming Chaz (Fenton and Barbato 2011), a recent and highly publicized
Table 1
Films
Films Year Length (minutes) Source
You Dont Know Dick:
Courageous
Hearts of Transsexual
Men (Schermerhorn and Cram 1997)
1997 75 Trans-Academics
Website
Southern Comfort
(Davis and Harrison 2003)
2003 90 Trans-Academics
Website
Call Me Malcolm
(Parlagreco et al. 2005)
2005 90 Trans-Academics
Website
Transparent
(Rosskam 2005)
2005 61 Trans-Academics
Website
Transgender Revolution
(Kurtis et al. 2006)
2006 50 Trans-Academics
Website
Enough Man
(Woodward 2006)
2006 61 Trans-Academics
Website
Boy I Am
(Feder and Hollar 2006)
2006 72 Internet Search
Still Black: A Portrait of
Black Transmen
(Ziegler 2009)
2009 78 Internet Search
Becoming Chaz
(Fenton and Barbato 2011)
2011 80 Internet Search
10 AUSTIN H. JOHNSON
documentation of celebrity Chaz Bonos transition. I also included Still Black:
A Portrait of Black Transmen (Ziegler 2009), currently the only documentary
feature that focuses solely on the lives of transgender men of color.Finally, I
included Boy I Am (2006), which appeared frequently in web searches regard-
ing transgender men and lm but was not included on the list provided by
trans-acadmics.org. The lms analyzed for this project include lms that focus
on individual transgender men as well as lms about gender transition in gen-
eral that include commentary from multiple members of the community. Five
of the lms are focused on gender transition in general. Four of the lms focus
on specic experiences of transgender masculinity such as intimate partner-
ships, parenting, sexuality, or illness.
In line with feminist methodologists(Harding 1991; Hesse-Biber 2014)
and my own (Johnson 2015b) call for reexivity in the research process, it is
necessary to reect here on my subject position as a researcher. As a transgen-
der man whose primary research area lies within the sociology of gender and
medical sociology, I am uniquely situated to conduct this research. While my
personal connection to transgender research colored my orientation to these
documentary lms and prior exposure to transgender studies scholarship
allowed for some anticipation of specic themes in the data, I did not restrict
my analysis to a predened coding scheme. My analysis of the documentaries
followed a three-step process of emergent coding (Mayring 2000; Stemler
2001). First, I reviewed all lms, making a list of topics as they arose. Second,
when all lms had been reviewed and topics recorded, I clustered topics into a
thematic coding scheme. Third, the coding scheme was applied to the data in a
second viewing. The second viewing also involved the collection and transcrip-
tion of excerpts from the data that were exemplary of the themes covered.
Findings
The documentaries analyzed for this project range in subject matter from
lms focusing on the general experiences transgender men to lms focusing on
transgender mens experiences of parenting, sexuality, activism, and black
racial identity. For the purposes of this analysis, which focuses on the ways in
which transnormative ideology is reinforced in documentary lms related to
transgender men, this article focuses on themes throughout the lms that relate
to the medical model of transgender identity. As the empirical ndings summa-
rized here show, there are two themes circulating throughout the documentaries
that reinforce transnormative ideology: (1) the born in the wrong body trope
that is constituted by narratives of transgender identity as something that is
known about rather than chosen for oneself, and (2) the necessity of medical
interventions for the actualization of transgender identity (Table 2).
TRANSNORMATIVITY 11
I Just Knew
Eight of the nine documentaries analyzed here give signicant amounts of
screen time to the discussion of the degree to which the transgender men have
known of their identities throughout their lives. This historical narrative of
knowing is constitutive of an essentialist and biological reductionist trope of
transgender people being born in the wrong body. As discussed above, diagno-
sis, treatment, and at times community inclusion are often contingent upon this
historical narrative. Legal transitionwhich secures gender marker and name
change, access to public restrooms and social welfare programsis dependent
on medical intervention and also relies on an essentialist narrative of knowing
one is transgender not choosing to transition (National Center for Transgender
Equality 2013). Thus, in order to attain medico-legal and thus social transition,
transgender men must deploy narratives of a lifelong struggle with gender iden-
tity that began in childhood. The documentary lms analyzed here reinforce
this transnormative ideology by privileging the medical model of gender iden-
tity in their presentations of childhood experiences as a way to establish trans-
gender mens lifelong identication with maleness. For example, in a narrative
explaining his decision to transition, Chaz (Becoming Chaz) is featured stating:
I just knew I wanted to be a boy. I didnt know there was a name for it or that there was
anything that could be done about it.
Like Chaz, James (You Dont Know Dick) is featured explaining his transi-
tion using his childhood feelings of bodily difference:
I knew from childhood that I wasnt like other girls. I also knew that I wasnt in some ways
like the other boys. I knew I would be more comfortable if I had a male body.
The presentation of childhood experiences as a means to support transgen-
der male identity centers on a lifelong rejection of femaleness. This rejection of
Table 2
Themes
Theme Occurrence
Total Films =9I just knew8lms
Total Men
Featured =57
Its a medical
condition that
needs to be treated
Hormone Therapy =49 men
Top Surgery =35 men
Bottom Surgery =4 men
12 AUSTIN H. JOHNSON
female anatomy is used in the lms to support transgender mens decisions to
correct their bodies and ultimately their senses of self. Asserting the knowledge
of ones gender identity from a young or adolescent age is inherent in the diag-
nostic criterias requirement of lifelong persistence of gender dysphoria. Some
transgender men, to be sure, do experience a lifelong struggle with feeling at
odds with their bodies. However, this state of knowing is presented in the lms
as something all transgender men experience. While the lms present some nar-
ratives of a felt sense of maleness in childhood with no specic referent for
claiming that identity, other narratives are presented that position transgender
identity arising from instances of dissonance with other male bodies. Transgen-
der Revolution, for instance, features Tonye stating that he became aware of
his identity during a childhood encounter with his brother:
I didnt feel different until one day I saw my brothers penis and I wondered where mine
was. And he said, well, you dont have one. And I said, well, why not? You know, I was
very young. And he said, because youre a girl. And I said, no, no, no. Im not a girl.Inmy
mind, I was a little boy. Always. That never changed.
Ethan (Still Black) is also featured describing a childhood experience in
which he voiced longing for male genitalia:
I remember asking my father when I was about three years old when my penis was gonna
grow and it totally freaked him out. But I knew, I mean, I would see little boys and I always
wanted to hang out with them all the time.
The sentiment of wanting to be male or knowing that one is male is a
common theme in the lms with several narratives featured that recall instances
of voicing these desires to others. Kym (Transparent) is featured remembering
an incident from childhood in which he voiced his male identication:
I do remember when I was about, like, eight years old and I went into this grocery store and
I, for some reason, I dont even know what the conversation was, but I stood up and I said,
You know, when I grow up, Im gonna be a man.
The lms also present a portrait of transgender men as harboring a secret
desire for a male body that ultimately causes them psychological distress. Mal-
colm (Call Me Malcolm) is featured remembering the difculty of keeping his
knowledge of his identity private:
When I was a kid, I used to think of myself as one of the brothers. I have two brothers so
that would have made me the third brother but other people perceived me as a girl. And I
couldnt really correct them. It made me feel like I wasnt there.
The lms privilege narratives that locate awareness of bodily difference in
childhood as well as in the changes that come with puberty. In these instances,
dysphoria is presented as beginning at puberty with the arrival of female
TRANSNORMATIVITY 13
breasts, menstruation, and pubescent sexuality. Chaz (Becoming Chaz), who,
above, was presented as having a dislocated ambivalence about his body in
childhood, is presented as locating his solidied gendered awareness in pub-
erty:
When I went through puberty it was obvious. Like, oh fuck, whats happening?! In high
school often at night I would go to bed praying I would wake up the next day as a boy.
Similarly, Malcolms(Call Me Malcolm) discomfort in childhood is pre-
sented as transforming into a gendered awareness at the onset of puberty:
So I had a female body and so when I turned twelve or something like that and the female
body kicked into female puberty which mostly involves secondary characteristics like breasts
and hips and then also involves menstruation. And I didnt appreciate that very much. I didnt
understand a lot about why I was uncomfortable with that. I didnt know exactly what was
the matter but I knew there was a problem.
Nicco (Boy I Am) is also featured describing physical discomfort with his
body. His experience is presented in the lm as relating his knowledge of his
transgender identity directly to his pubescent physical body:
I could stand in the bathroom and look at my face in the mirror for hours on end. And I did,
and be like, is that really my face? It didnt feel like me [...] Any time I was aware physi-
cally that my breasts on my body were moving, and its obvious you know, I hated it. I hated
the feeling.
The lmsprivileging of childhood and adolescent memories to explain
and afrm a transgender male identity grounds transgender individualsidenti-
ties in the innocent unknowing of young peoples natural inclinations rather
than a result of socialization or choice. In this way, the lms present the afr-
mation of maleness as contingent upon the disavowal of femaleness. In relying
on a binary model of sex category, the lms sustain an essentialist and biologi-
cal reductionist medical model of transgender identity wherein transgender indi-
viduals are born in the wrong body compared with cisgender individuals who
presumably never experience bodily discomfort related to sex and gender
(Spade 2003). According to the narratives privileged in these documentaries,
transgender men possess an internal sense of male identity that forms in or
before childhood and adolescence that is in stark contrast to assigned and
socially recognized sex category. Even while presented as actively constructing
their male identities through testosterone therapy and surgical body modica-
tion, as is discussed below, transgender male identity is still presented as rely-
ing on transnormative ideologies around innate and known identities.
14 AUSTIN H. JOHNSON
Its a Medical Condition that Needs to Be Treated
Throughout the documentaries, medical intervention is privileged as the
path to a successful and complete transition. As discussed above, the emphasis
on medical intervention mirrors the requirements for a medical, legal, and
social gender transition. Given the current medical authority over transgender
identities, there is no way to undergo gender transition without acting in accor-
dance with this authority. In addition to transgender men, some documentaries
included here feature prominent physicians in the eld of transgender health to
support the necessity of medical intervention for successful transition. One lm
features Dr. Richard Horowitz (Becoming Chaz), a world-renowned endocrinol-
ogist specializing in hormonal sex reassignment. Another lm features Dr.
Daniel Greenwald (Transgender Revolution), a prominent neurosurgeon special-
izing in genital reconstruction. Both of these physicians are featured in ways
that legitimate the medical model of transgender identity. Dr. Richard Horowitz
(Becoming Chaz) is used in one lm to make the medical nature of transgender
identity plain:
The gender condition is, in my own estimation, no different from diabetes or high blood pres-
sure. Its a medical condition that needs to be treated.
The narratives of transgender men are presented in the documentaries in
ways that bolster the authority of the medical model and reinforce the diagnos-
tic criteria regarding the role of bodily discomfort and a desire for body modi-
cation in the lives of transgender people. Of the 57 men featured in the
documentaries, 49 are undergoing hormone replacement by way of testosterone
therapy, 35 have undergone chest reconstruction referred to in transgender com-
munities as top surgery, and 4 have undergone genital reconstruction referred
to in transgender communities as bottom surgery. As shown above, the docu-
mentaries analyzed for this project present transgender men who afrm their
identities as something they have known since childhood or adolescence.
Therefore, the steps for a successful transition at the individual level are char-
acterized as solely and necessarily physical. Several lms highlight transgender
men describing their decisions to physically modify their bodies in matter of
fact terms. Robert (Southern Comfort), in a narrative about the simplicity of
transgender peoples decisions to undergo body modication, is featured recall-
ing his process:
The main thing I did was accept myself, and then I went on testosterone, and I had top sur-
gery. I had a form of mastectomy done. I had the breasts removed. And thats all I had to
do.
TRANSNORMATIVITY 15
Similarly, Malcolm (Call Me Malcolm) is presented describing his transi-
tion as the result of his acceptance of himself as male and the requisite physical
transformation that followed:
Ive transitioned. I had a year of transition. Everything changed that year in terms of gender.
Now, Im just Malcolm.
In a narrative justifying his decision to spend thirty thousand dollars on
transition related surgeries, Terry (Transgender Revolution) is featured describ-
ing the necessity of medical intervention for a successful transition:
Its not elective. Its not a choice. Youre not happy with yourself. You cant hardly stand
yourself physically [...] Being transsexual is no different to me than like having cancer. You
have to have it removed. You have to have it taken care of. You cant just live with it. Even-
tually it will eat you alive, just like cancer.
In privileging medical intervention as the path to identity actualization, the
documentary lms analyzed here reinforce transnormativity by relying on
essentialist and biologically deterministic ideas about what constitutes male and
female bodies. To further support a medical model of transgender identity, the
lms analyzed here present specic narratives regarding the importance of hor-
mone use and chest reconstruction. Of the 57 men featured in the documen-
taries, 49 are undergoing hormone replacement therapy via testosterone
injections or creams in order to modify their secondary sex characteristics (e.g.,
vocal pitch, body hair, fat distribution, muscle mass, skin texture). Max (You
Dont Know Dick) is featured describing the transition process, speaking
directly to the importance of testosterone therapy:
The hormones are sort of the essence in a sense, or one of the essential ingredients, in what
makes one a man or a woman biologically. And the hormones really do change you.
In addition to privileging narratives that stress the importance of hormone
replacement therapy, the lms also privilege narratives that highlight the impor-
tance of chest reconstruction. Thirty-ve men included in the documentaries
had either undergone or were featured voicing plans to undergo chest recon-
struction or top surgery. Most transgender men included in the documentaries
analyzed here describe their chest reconstruction as a necessary result of their
discomfort with female-identied characteristics, referred to in transgender
communities as body dysphoria. Nicco (Boy I Am) is featured describing the
life-interrupting feeling of body dysphoria associated with his female-identied
chest and his desire for top surgery:
Idenitely think that having breasts has sort of interrupted me from almost functioning in the
way that I would as a human being. So Im absolutely going to do chest surgery. [...] I dont
think I will every be truly living my life unless I have this surgery.
16 AUSTIN H. JOHNSON
In a narrative about his sexuality, Wendel (Enough Man) is featured
describing his female breasts as a source of great discomfort and his anticipa-
tion of bodily comfort after surgery:
I feel like theres this thing between my chest and my partners. And that is really hard for
me because like no matter how someone touches it, theyre not going to be able to touch
what really feels like its a part of me. Im really looking forward to being touched after sur-
gery and, like, how good thats going to feel.
Some transgender men are represented in the lms as having felt an
increased sense of body dysphoria regarding their chests after beginning hor-
mone replacement therapy. Ethan (Still Black) is featured describing his rela-
tionship to his chest in terms of gender incongruence:
Having breasts was just, I was like, this is not what a guy is supposed to look like. Cause I
was starting to get a beard, I had a mustache, and was looking a lot more masculine and then
there were these big honking, you know. And I was just like, ugh, no, I cantdoit.
Riks(Enough Man) is featured expressing a similar reaction to his chest
after starting testosterone therapy:
I wouldnt not be bound and go to bed, or, you know, sometimes I didnt want my chest
touched. Or, if someone touched my chest in a particular way that I felt they were relating to
them as breasts rather than my chest, I would just freak out.
In privileging narratives that stress the importance of hormone therapy and
chest reconstruction in the identity development of transgender men, the lms
analyzed for this project bolster the authority of the medical model of transgen-
der identity and reinforce transnormative accountability structures. While many
transgender men may identify with a medical model of transition and actively
seek hormone therapy and surgical body modication, a transnormative medical
model is the only path to identity actualization that the lms offer. The privi-
leging of a medical model of transgender identity not only limits the image of
transgender identity presented to the public, but the use of documentary lm to
convey this image creates the illusion of a realness or authenticity structure to
which transgender men as a group are held accountable.
The lms included in this project stress the importance of testosterone and
chest reconstruction in the identity development of transgender men. It is
important to note that their treatment of genital reconstruction is less direct. Of
the 57 men included in the documentaries, only four were featured who had
undergone or voiced plans to undergo genital reconstruction or bottom surgery.
Fifty-three transgender men featured in the lms had not had bottom surgery.
Several of the men were presented as desiring but not seeking surgery due to
limitations of cost and effectiveness. Others dismissed the need for bottom
TRANSNORMATIVITY 17
surgery as personal choice rather than necessity for male identication. These
results, seemingly contradictory to earlier statements regarding the role of the
body in transgender mens accomplishment of maleness, may be reective of
the current state of female-to-male genital reconstruction. Genital reconstruction
is signicantly more expensive than chest reconstruction surgery. Top, or chest
reconstruction, surgeries are available in most major U.S. cities and cost
between ve and ten thousand dollars, bottom surgeries are only available in a
select few cities in the United States and cost between fteen and one hundred
thousand dollars depending on the type of procedure and quality of surgeon. In
addition to cost, genital reconstruction is less common due to effectiveness.
Neither of the two primary proceduresmetoidioplasty and phalloplastycre-
ates a fully functional penis that would be considered natural. The lms privi-
lege narratives of experiences that highlight these issues. Michael (You Dont
Know Dick) is featured citing cost as his primary reason for not pursuing geni-
tal reconstruction surgery:
Id love to get bottom surgery. Right now its cost-prohibitive.
For Michael, and others, the desire for medically altered genitalia is pre-
sent even when the means to obtain genital reconstruction are absent. Other
transgender men, however, are featured citing effectiveness as the primary bar-
rier to them seeking genital reconstruction. Chaz (Becoming Chaz) is featured
stating this position in specic and direct terms:
A lot of us elect not to do the surgery because its not very good. They havent really gured
out how to make a functioning penis.
Wendels(Enough Man) experience is also used to support the perspective
of outcome limitations of bottom surgery:
Im not ever planning on having bottom surgery because it wouldnt work and what Ive got
works.
The lms also feature men categorizing the desire for bottom surgery as
based on individual experience with not all transgender men wanting or need-
ing genital reconstruction. Malcolms(Call Me Malcolm) featured narrative
positions cost and effectiveness as less important than personal desire:
My experience is that youll know if you have to have surgery. If its an agonized decision
and you really dont know, then you dont get the surgery. But, if you know at some point
that you really have to have that then it really doesnt matter how inconvenient, expensive, or
uncomfortable it isyoull get the surgery.
Some men in the documentaries are presented as dismissive of the need
for bottom surgery altogether, insisting that male genitals are not necessary for
18 AUSTIN H. JOHNSON
gender transition. Robert (Southern Comfort) is featured stating this position
directly:
Some of the guys, especially the younger guys just coming out, they think theyve got to
have that bottom surgery. If they dont have that piece of esh swinging between their legs,
theyre not a man. Being a man or being a woman has nothing to do with your genitalia. It
has to do with whats right here in your heart and whats in your mind.
James (You Dont Know Dick), who has undergone bottom surgery, is fea-
tured defending his decision to undergo phalloplasty but echoes the assertion
that the penis does not make the man:
My penis isnt like every other mans penis and we have to realize that the exact shape of
the penis and the exact size of the penis does not make a man.
The use of Robert and Jamess narratives on genital reconstruction are
seemingly contradictory to earlier narratives presented in the lms regarding
the importance of chest reconstruction. The ambivalence presented in the lms
regarding the importance of bottom surgery for transgender men is likely the
result of the barriers to obtaining those kinds of surgeries. Additionally, genital
reconstruction does not have the same kinds of social and legal consequences
for transgender men as testosterone therapy and chest reconstruction. Without
hormonal treatments and chest reconstruction, transgender men would not be
allowed to live legally, and for some socially, as men. For transgender men,
sex category assignment is contingent on the visible consequences of medical
procedures. The results of testosterone therapy and chest reconstruction are vis-
ible in everyday life and thus play a central role in the sex categorical assign-
ment of transgender men. The results of genital reconstruction are only visible
to the men themselves and their partners. That is, genital reconstruction is not a
socially visible signier of sex, gender, or sex category. In this way, the lms
are treating the accessible and medically effective testosterone therapy and
chest reconstruction as prerequisites for male identication. Genital reconstruc-
tion, however, is less accessible and less medically effective and is therefore
not presented as a necessary component of male identication.
Discussion and Conclusion
Prior research calls attention to how binary, medically based, normative
understandings of sex and gender affect transgender experiences of community,
health, and legal recognition. However, there has yet to be an attempt to con-
solidate this research into an overarching conceptualization situated within
existing theoretical frameworks. As the literature reviewed here shows, trans
people are subject to regulatory standards placed on their identities in their
interactions within community groups, health care, and legal settings. Thus far,
TRANSNORMATIVITY 19
the research on each of these settings has not been connected or consolidated
into a recognizable concept nor has it been situated within an overarching
theoretical framework tied to normative accountability structures. As argued
here, we should begin to think of the regulations on transgender identity and
autonomy as characteristic of a normative ideology that structures interactions
in every arena of social life. As stated above, as a normative ideology,
transnormativity should be understood alongside heteronormativity and
homonormativity as both an empowering and constraining set of ideals that
deem some transgender identications, characteristics, and behaviors as legiti-
mate and prescriptive while others are marginalized, subordinated, or rendered
invisible. Many trans people will, to be sure, identify with a medical model of
transgender identity and experience. However, the hegemony of this model
leads to transnormative practices that eclipse differences of experience among
transgender people and marginalizes transgender experiences that do not adhere
to a binary, medical model of gender identity.
Due to the medicalization of gender non-conformity under the purview of
the American Psychiatric Association, transgender people are subject to a strin-
gent set of criteria that is designed to determine the legitimacy and authenticity
of individualstransgender identities. These criteria have until recently rested
under the diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder, changed to Gender Dysphoria
in American Psychiatric Association (2013), and act as a positive test for deter-
mining the legitimacy of claims to trans identity according to two general areas.
The rst of which is a strong and persistent identication with the opposite
sex, or, an insistence that one is the opposite sex. The second is a discomfort
with and desire to rid oneself of ones natal sex characteristics and desire to
acquire the sex characteristics of the opposite sex. Not only are these two areas
still present in descriptions of Gender Dysphoria, but individuals must also
experience emotional distress if medical intervention is not available. The fail-
ure to satisfy these criteria limits individualsaccess to transgender as an iden-
tity category, gender-afrming medical and legal interventions, and, as previous
research shows, social acceptance within transgender communities.
This article employs documentary lm as an empirical example to illus-
trate the concept of transnormativity in the media portrayals of transgender
men. By demonstrating the ways in which discourses circulating throughout the
lms privilege a binary medical model of transgender identity and experience,
this article posits that an understanding of transgender peoples lived experience
must include attention to transnormative structures of accountability. By not
questioning the privileged medical model of transgender experience and iden-
tity, researchers overlook a key aspect of transgender peoples lived expere-
inces. The narratives of a medical model of transgender identity privileged by
20 AUSTIN H. JOHNSON
these lms are indicative of transnormative accountability structures that are
necessary for the social legitimation of a transgender identity.
Transgender men, transgender women, and transgender people who iden-
tify outside of a binary gender system differ in terms of their relationship to
their gendered body parts, the types of gender-afrming medical care they
desire, and the social consequences of their presentations of self before, during,
and after transition (Serano 2007). In order to get a more accurate portrait of
transnormativity, variations of transgender identity congurations must be con-
sidered separately. The empirical example used in this article focuses speci-
cally on transgender men. To be accepted as transgender by cisgender and
transgender people, transgender men are often held accountable to essentialist
and biological reductionist standards that require: (1) the description of a life-
long and persistent identication with maleness and (2) the description of their
desire for a body that is congruent with a social categorization of maleness.
The discourse circulating throughout the documentaries analyzed here mirrors
the diagnostic standards outlined by the American Psychiatric Association and
enforced by legal and medical gatekeepers that restrict access to gender-afrm-
ing documents and medical care and thus sustains transnormative ideology.
First, in privileging narratives of transgender men who describe their life-
long identication with maleness, the lms promote a discovery narrative of
transgender identity. This discovery narrative marks transgender identity not as
something one chooses or develops but as something that is natural, essential,
and free from agency. That is, the lms present a portrait of transgender men
being born in the wrong body. One commonly featured narrative is the recol-
lection of childhood longings to be male. Additionally, the lms privilege nar-
ratives that establish transgender mens strong dislike for their natal sex
characteristics. As my analysis shows, the privileging of narratives regarding
childhood and adolescent identication with maleness and disdain for female-
ness is common throughout the lms. Second, in featuring narratives of desire
for a body that is congruent with male identication and social presentation of
gender, the lms promote the need for medical interventions. The privileging
of these types of narratives in documentaries featuring transgender men rein-
forces the accountability structures that exist for transgender people in everyday
life. In their attempt to document authentic transgender experience, these lms
have collectively reinforced a medical model of transgender identity to which
all transgender people are held accountable, regardless of their identication
with a binary medical model.
The practice of dening and locating transnormative portrayals of gender
non-conformity has real-world implications for transgender people. Media rep-
resentations provide easily accessible representations of transgender people and
thus serve as the culturally available knowledge that structures our
TRANSNORMATIVITY 21
understanding of transgender identities and experiences (Dill 2009). As
reviewed above, research suggests that transgender representations on screen
serve as a mechanism through which transgender and cisgender people alike
acquire a certain perception of what constitutes transgender authenticity and
these representations may affect the identity processes of trans people.
Within the college classroom, lms are often used to introduce students to
subject positions and experiences otherwise outside of their cultural awareness
(Livingston 2004). Professors employ lms as not merely visual illustrations
of social processes and problems but also as data that students can use to his-
toricize social life and grapple with micro-macro linkages and human agency
(Wellin 2013, p. 404). The use of documentary lm as classroom data on the
experiences of transgender individuals must include a contextualization of the
hegemonic themes being presented, namely those that privilege transnormative
models of transgender identity and experience. Otherwise, students are being
exposed to a narrowly dened hegemonic model of transgender identity and
experience that eclipses the lived experience of many transgender people.
Further, transnormative ideology has racialized class implications. For
trans people who do wish to undergo gender-afrming medical intervention,
the vast majority of their medical expenses are paid for out of pocket. Even
trans people who have access to health insurance are often forced to pay for
their own transition related medical care as insurance policies often have an
explicit clause stating that they do not cover any psychologists, specialists, pro-
cedures, or medications related to gender reassignment. Locating transgender
authenticity within a medical model thus excludes those who do not have the
resources to access the services necessary to receive diagnosis and subsequent
medical interventions.
The class-based barriers to adhering to a medical model of trans experi-
ence disproportionately affects transgender people of color. In 2010, the
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender
Equality surveyed over 6000 trans adults living in the United States, the Dis-
trict of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands nding that
trans people of color were signicantly less likely to have health insurance than
white community members and black respondents were unemployed at over
twice the rate of white respondents (Grant et al. 2011). The social circum-
stances of poverty make it nearly impossible to afford the services that are con-
stitutive of a medical model of trans identity. In wedding transgender
authenticity to a medical model, transnormative ideology may create social con-
ditions of additional marginalization for low-income trans people of color
within an already marginalized community of trans people.
An analysis of transnormativity, as it is developed here, highlights trans-
gender mens accountability to a medical model of transgender identity. My
22 AUSTIN H. JOHNSON
empirical example is focused on the ways that social rhetoric and the media
reinforce transnormativity in the narratives of transgender men. Future research
should continue to explore this phenomenon in the everyday lived experiences
of transgender people, including transgender women and transgender people
who do not identify within a binary gender system. That is, sociological analy-
ses of transgender peoples lived experiences must continue to include attention
to their accountability to medical and legal standards that restrict access to
transgender identication. My project focuses specically on the discursive pro-
duction of transnormative ideology surrounding transgender mens experience
and identity. Future research must explore the manifestation of transnormativity
for a wider range of transgender identity congurations. Documentary lm as a
medium of communication is often designed with a very specic purposeto
inform and persuade. Given the range of documentaries analyzed for this pro-
ject and the homogeneity of my ndings across lms, my research reveals the
consistent privileging of a transnormative ideology that centers on a medical
model of discovery and body modication for transgender identity in discourse
relating to transgender individuals and stresses the need for a framework that
better accounts for transnormativity and its accompanying accountability struc-
tures.
ENDNOTES
*Please direct correspondence to Austin H. Johnson, Sociology, Kent State University, 700
Hilltop Drive Merrill Hall, Kent OH 44242, USA; e-mail: ajohn184@kent.edu
Austin H. Johnson is a doctoral candidate and university fellow in the Department of Sociol-
ogy at Kent State University. His research and teaching interests include gender identities, inequali-
ties, and medical sociology. He holds an M.A. in Sociology from Kent State University and a B.A.
in Sociology from the University of South Carolina Upstate.
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TRANSNORMATIVITY 27
... Before the ICD revision and despite its own predicaments (see Suess, 2020, for a criticism), dominant biomedical, psychological and legal discourses had been promoting a Western, dichotomous, normative model of understanding gender (Fausto-Sterling, 2000;Johnson, 2016;Spade, 2006). This model, replete with universalist assumptions, has been grounded upon the entitlement of those discourses to granting legitimacy to certain prototypical identities, and to imposing and institutionalising normative positions as natural, through laws, tax rules, or values such as monogamy (Athanasiou and Butler, 2013;Iantaffi and Bockting, 2011;Sennott, 2010). ...
... Transgender identities and experiences are utterly disparate, bringing to the surface not only the discordance between gender identity and sex assigned at birth, but more importantly, what gender identity is about: social group membership, felt contentment with one's own self-presentation, felt pressure for conformity, and attitudes towards other gendered groups (Egan and Perry, 2001;Wood and Eagly, 2015). TGNC people in Western societies have long been obliged to comply with several psychiatric, medical and legal criteria of gender in order to be recognised as such and be relatively integrated into society (Billings and Urban, 1982;Hines, 2013;Johnson, 2016). Passing, the "ability" to socially hide trans status (Garfinkel, 1967(Garfinkel, /1991, has been a key element in this system of compliance. ...
... Activist groups, radical thinking on gender, and distrust on health professionals' motives, initiated a process of gradual alienation from the narratives Mason-Schrock and Stone describe. The shift, however, seemed like a threat to those people who depended on the system's confirmation in order to fully transition, and that mounted to a series of conflicts inside the transgender community (Johnson, 2016;Missé, 2018). ...
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Depathologisation of gender diversity in the ICD-11 marks a shift in psychological services for transgender and gender nonconforming people. Even though the stipulated changes are only practically applicable ever since early 2022, a general move towards affirmative psychotherapeutic and counselling practice has been noticed ever since 2018. The present paper covers three main models of mental health care for gender minorities, namely the conversion therapy model, the transsexual gatekeeping model, and the affirmative model, in order to view them under a novel lens. Drawing on Science, Technology and Society Studies, the universalist presumptions and rigid gender roles of the traditional models are brought under scrutiny. Moreover, the itinerary reveals the need for situated narratives that encourage self-determination and renovate the therapeutic relationship as a means of self-exploration instead of an institutional control mechanism. Concluding, it is remarked that intersectional knowledge is crucial in compensating for micro-aggressive practices and dynamics historically promoted by psychologists and other mental health providers.
... Activists and researchers from feminist, queer and transgender political and theoretical perspectives have criticised the wrong-body model, also called transnormativity (Johnson, 2016), of the idea of fixed identities and for lack of consideration for nonbinary identities (Bettcher, 2014;Daves, 2021;Engdahl, 2014). However, repeating the narrative in medical settings has gained access to hormonal and surgery treatment for transgender individuals, making the wrongbody model dominant in psychiatric and clinical research (Bettcher, 2014;Hines, 2007;Namaste, 2000;Stone, 2006). ...
... As medical professionals are gatekeepers for trans-specific healthcare and have been the main producers of research on transgender people, they have wielded enormous power over the range of possible ways in which gender-variant individuals can express their gendered identities and how transgender experiences have been understood (Bettcher, 2014;Engdahl, 2014;Irving, 2013). Activists and researchers from feminist, queer and transgender political and theoretical points of view have criticised the medical understanding of transgender people, which can be conceptualised with the 'wrong-body model' (Bettcher, 2014;Daves, 2021;Engdahl, 2014;Johnson, 2016). It represents the idea of a transgender person as a man or woman 'trapped in the wrong body' (Bettcher, 2014;Engdahl, 2014), and it has produced limited understanding of a variety of transgender experiences. ...
Thesis
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This doctoral thesis is the first extensive research on the information practices of Finnish transgender people. This research focuses on embodied information, which is defined as information derived from the sensory and sentient experiences of people in practice. The findings contribute to the developing knowledge on transgender individuals’ experiences of the ways that senses, affects, body-related self-observations and observations of other people’s bodies are a part of information practices. The conceptual framework of the research builds upon a theorisation of information behaviour and practices, transitions and queer theory and transgender studies in an interdisciplinary fashion. Methodologically, interpretive phenomenology informs the research. The thesis is founded on four peer-reviewed articles (Studies I, II, III and IV), and a compilation report combining their results with a focus on transgender individuals’ embodied experiences. The empirical material was collected through 12 interviews in 2013 (Study I) and 25 interviews in 2016 (Studies II, III and IV) with Finnish people who identified as transgender. The data were analysed using qualitative content analysis and queer phenomenology. The findings of this research illustrate how personal and interpersonal factors shape information practices of transgender individuals, including information encountering, seeking, creation, sharing, use, avoiding and hiding. The findings foreground the interconnectedness of bodily experiences, affects and stigma within the experiences of transgender individuals, indicating how these elements can shape their information practices during gender transitions. This thesis increases the understanding of affects as social phenomena that shape the embodied information practices of marginalised populations. The research suggests that the concept of early-stage information needs can be used to understand how embodied knowledge and friction between the lived experience and the social world can lead to information seeking. Moreover, the results provide novel insight into how bodily discomfort can act as a trigger for a transition. The outcomes of the research provide new knowledge to support and inform information and healthcare providers and organisations working with transgender people by describing the variety of information needs and information barriers that transgender people encounter.
... Although "nonbinary" is a broad category encompassing many unique experiences of gender, nonbinary people are often read by others within the context of dominant, simplified narratives of transgender identity. Johnson (2016) describes this phenomenon as transnormativity, "a hegemonic ideology that structures transgender experience, identification, and narratives into a hierarchy of legitimacy that is dependent upon a binary medical model and its accompanying standards, regardless of individual transgender people's interest in or intention to undertake medical pathways to transition" (p. 466). ...
... Compared to binary-identified trans people, they experienced additional challenges "rendering themselves as real" and establishing that they were neither confused nor feigning their identities (Vincent, 2020, p. 78). Standards of transnormativity are circulated within trans communities in addition to being imposed externally by institutional actors (Johnson, 2016). Besides more general experiences of discrimination, nonbinary people have reported rejection and exclusion by members of other sexual and gender minority groups, including cisgender queer people and binary trans people (shuster, 2019;Stone, 2013). ...
Chapter
The current study examines the strategies that nonbinary people use to communicate their gender identities across contexts, including an exploration of how they modify their gender presentations in response to situations perceived as risky or unsafe. Data were drawn from interviews with 19 nonbinary people, and a modified grounded theory approach was used to identify prevalent or recurring elements in the data. Nonbinary people struggled to communicate their genders to others and felt constrained by the knowledge that others would inevitably interpret their gender presentations within the context of a strict binary. Moreover, they often felt pressure to enact normative, binary presentations in order to feel safer or less visibly gender-nonconforming, particularly in contexts in which social norms were experienced as heightened, such as when engaging with institutions or navigating public spaces such as restrooms or transit systems. This study contributes to the limited literature on nonbinary identities and highlights how dominant transnormative narratives constrain presentation and communication.
... Retention of a diagnostic category specific to gender diversity unavoidably perpetuates a medicalized approach of intraindividual pathology requiring intervention (e.g., Castro-Peraza et al. 2019;Lev 2005;Kamens 2011;Schulz 2017;Davy 2015). Gender dysphoria is this intra-actively materialized as an individual experience of gendered distress and as the reigning diagnostic and conceptual paradigm through which TNG experiences, such as dissociative experiences, are often understoodboth by the psy-disciplines that frame them as such and by TNG people who may iatrogenically adopt and internalize this framing of their experience (Johnson 2015(Johnson , 2016(Johnson , 2018. ...
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... populations provided an ideal case for (1) revealing binary assumptions and unasked questions in social science as a whole, and (2) examining the interactional construction of multiple, interconnected systems of sex, gender, and sexual meanings and inequalities including but not limited to heteronormativity (Schilt & Westbrook, 2009), homonormativity , transnormativity (Johnson, 2016), and mononormativity (Barringer et al., 2017). In so doing, they argue a bisexual and/or nonbinary Symbolic Interactionism may dramatically transform and expand sociological understandings of sex, gender, and sexualities in society. ...
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Within and beyond Symbolic Interactionism, sociological studies of bisexual, transgender, lesbian, and gay (BTLG) populations have expanded dramatically in the past two decades. Although such studies have invigorated our understanding of many aspects of BTLG life and experience, they have thus far left BTLG Pride relatively unexplored. How do BTLG populations experience Pride, and what insights might such efforts have for sociologically understanding such populations and events? We examine these questions through an interview study of bi+ people (i.e., sexually fluid people who identify as bisexual, pansexual, or otherwise outside of gay/straight binaries; Eisner, 2013). Specifically, we analyze how bi+ people negotiate both (1) experiencing Pride as “outsiders within” the broader BTLG population (Collins, 1986), and (2) framing who Pride is for and what it means in practice. In so doing, we demonstrate how Interactionist analyses of certain groups’ meaning making around and experiences of Pride can expand existing sociologies of BTLG populations, bisexual experience, and Pride.
... Possible reasons for this include the discrimination, prejudice, stigmatization, and resulting negative psychological outcomes which are common for these groups (Testa et al., 2015). While this study provided the option ''prefer not to say,'' there is a body of research which suggests that the experiences of each subgroup outside of the binary cisgender representation differ (Johnson, 2016). Subjective well-being and life satisfaction measures within the non-binary sample are an important aspect of future research with large sample sizes as the experiences of this group will not necessarily overlap with the ''male'' or ''female'' identity and these individuals may identify with both or neither . ...
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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, experts warned of the increasing rate of mental well-being issues among university students. The pandemic impacted the university-age populations, which studies have found to be particularly at risk for COVID-related stress, anxiety, and depression. There is cause for concern, particularly in countries such as Thailand that have relatively underdeveloped mental health systems and greater stigmatization of psychopathology. As a step toward addressing this concern, this study assessed student well-being at a Thai university ( N = 367) using three online survey instruments: the EPOCH Measure of Adolescent Well-being, the Subjective Happiness Scale (SHS), and the Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS). Participants’ scores on all three scales were relatively low compared to the results of previous studies conducted in Thailand and internationally. Based on these results, the authors call for further investigation and interventions to address the growing need for the cultivation of well-being among university students in Thailand.
... 50,51 Because gatekeepers have always been a part of defining transgender experiences in the United States, transgender people who take certain kinds of transition steps can be viewed as ''more legitimate'' than those that do not through what Austin Johnson refers to as ''transnormativity.'' 52 For the purpose of this perspective, it is perhaps enough to say that some transgender people choose to pursue ''medical transition'' such as taking hormones or having surgery, but many do not, either because of lack of access/appropriate medical care or because they do not want to. Transgender people that do take medical transition steps may then have sex-related characteristics such as secondary sex characteristics, hormone levels, or genitals that are different than what would be presumed based on their sex assigned at birth. ...
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False assumptions that sex and gender are binary, static, and concordant are deeply embedded in the medical system. As machine learning researchers use medical data to build tools to solve novel problems, understanding how existing systems represent sex/gender incorrectly is necessary to avoid perpetuating harm. In this perspective, we identify and discuss three factors to consider when working with sex/gender in research: “sex/gender slippage,” the frequent substitution of sex and sex-related terms for gender and vice versa; “sex confusion,” the fact that any given sex variable holds many different potential meanings; and “sex obsession,” the idea that the relevant variable for most inquiries related to sex/gender is sex assigned at birth. We then explore how these phenomena show up in medical machine learning research using electronic health records, with a specific focus on HIV risk prediction. Finally, we offer recommendations about how machine learning researchers can engage more carefully with questions of sex/gender.
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Gender and sexuality are contentious political issues in the US, with a resurgence of traditional master narratives for gender following decades of advances for gender equality. To understand how today’s LGBTQ+ youth navigate this narrative landscape in a polymedia context, we conducted social media tour interviews with 20 LGBTQ+ adolescents (aged 16–19), recording audiovisual data as they guided us through important posts on their top three public social media platforms. Through reflexive thematic analysis, we found that our participants were engaging with both longstanding master narratives (e.g., traditional gender roles) and contemporary alternative narratives (e.g., gender as non-binary) using three key navigational strategies for engaging with narratives on social media platforms: seeking and sharing information, creating queer community, and making choices about visibility and permanence. The meaning and purpose of these strategies for participants, both individually and collectively, could not be fully understood apart from three key navigational contexts: the traditional gender narrative, white liberal community context, and platform affordances. Our results demonstrate that narrative engagement for contemporary LGBTQ+ adolescents is deeply influenced by personal polymedia environments, identity intersections, and power structures shaping possibilities for individual identity expression and collective cultural transformation.
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Non-binary gender is a marginalised queer identity increasingly receiving mainstream media representation, a subject that warrants investigation. Non-binary is an umbrella term under which many experiences of gender fall, a factor that necessitates a nuanced variety of narrative representations to avoid perpetuating or creating static and singular archetypes. This article examines a sample of young adult novels with non-binary protagonists published between 2017 and 2020, exploring the various ways these texts express and explore their central characters’ gender identity. My findings reveal thematic commonalities between these novels, with particular focus on the language used to describe these characters’ felt sense of gender, their experiences with dysphoria/euphoria, their relationships to broader queer communities within their story worlds, and the intersections of queer gender and speculative elements. I argue that this subset we might call ‘non-binary YA’ serves as an emblem of the development of queer YA overall, its rapid expansion through various genres and narrative types providing a microcosm of the growth of the literary field and pointing to its future.
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Este texto é uma tradução do trabalho de conclusão de curso de Lori Puopolo. (PUOPOLO, 2018) Em seu estudo, e autore se baseia em pesquisas que analisam como profissionais da medicina e da saúde mental utilizam a visão transmedicalista para limitar o acesso de pessoas trans a tratamentos de afirmação de gênero, com a finalidade de compreender como os discursos propagados por eles afetam, especificamente, o acesso de pessoas não binárias ao processo transexualizador. Desse modo, Puopolo observa que enquanto esses especialistas usam um discurso dominante sobre indivíduos transvestigeneres para regular os corpos de sujeitos não binários, esses sujeitos internalizam essas mesmas falas e, por isso, também atrasam seus próprios tratamentos. Puopolo descobre que a internet é o meio de comunicação usado por essas pessoas não binárias para discutir e se informar sobre as possibilidades da transição, notando que à medida que elas têm acesso a mais explicações, elas se tornam mais dispostas a procurar pelos tratamentos desejados.
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Documentary film, in the words of Bill Nichols, is one of the "discourses of sobriety" that include science, economics, politics, and history-discourses that claim to describe the "real," to tell the truth. Yet documentary film, in more obvious ways than does history, straddles the categories of fact and fiction, art and document, entertainment and knowledge. And the visual languages with which it operates have quite different effects than does the written text. In the following interview conducted during the winter of 1997, historian Ann-Louise Shapiro raises questions about genre-the relationship of form to content and meaning-with documentary filmmaker Jill Godmilow, In order to explore the possibilities and constraints of non-fiction film as a medium for representing history, Godmilow was asked: What are the strategies and techniques by which documentary films make meaning? In representing historical events, how does a non-fiction filmmaker think about accuracy? authenticity? invention? What are the criteria you have in mind when you call a film like The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl "dishonest"? How does the tension between making art and making history affect documentary filmmaking? Should documentary filmmakers think of themselves, in the phrase of Ken Burns, as "tribal storytellers"? What kind of historical consciousness is produced by documentary film?
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Although accountability lies at the heart of the "doing gender" perspective, it has received surprisingly little attention from gender scholars. In this article, I analyze the different ways that scholars have conceptualized accountability. I propose a synthesis of these various understandings, and demonstrate the utility of this conceptualization with examples from my research on feminist self-defense training. This analysis sheds light on both the workings of accountability and the process of change in gender expectations and practices. I conclude by considering the implications of this reconceptualization of accountability.
Book
This book is a major contribution to contemporary gender and sexuality studies. At a time when transgender practices are the subject of increasing social and cultural visibility, it marks the first UK study of transgender identity formation. It is also the first examination - anywhere in the world - of transgender practices of intimacy and care. The author addresses changing government legislation concerning the citizenship rights of transgender people. She examines the impact of legislative shifts upon transgender people’s identities, intimate relationships and practices of care and considers the implications for future social policy. The book encompasses key approaches from the fields of psychoanalysis, anthropology, lesbian and gay studies, sociology and gender theory. Drawing on extensive interviews with transgender people, “TransForming gender” offers engaging, moving, and, at times, humorous accounts of the experiences of gender transition. Written in an accessible style, it provides a vivid insight into the diversity of living gender in today’s world. The book will be essential reading for students and professionals in cultural studies, gender studies and sexuality studies as well as those in sociology, social policy, law, politics and philosophy. It will also be of interest to health and educational students, trainers and practitioners. Sally Hines is a lecturer in sociology and social policy at the University of Leeds. Her teaching and research interests fall within the areas of identity, gender, sexuality, the body and citizenship.
Article
Symbolic interactionists have widely established the tenet that the self is formed in interaction with others. Despite this great contribution, this perspective has tended to sidestep discussions of the relationship between the body and the self and to overlook systems of power and the ways in which they impact upon the self and the body. The more recent contributions of postmodernists and critical theorists have focused on knowledge as a system of power. An examination of a sample of transgendered persons, individuals who endeavor to present alternatively gendered selves within a social system that proclaims males to be men and females to be women, provides a unique opportunity to analyze the ways in which knowledge systems affect gender identity and the embodied self. While individuals are not able to fully escape the dictates of the binary system of knowledge about sex and gender, they are capable of devising alternative ways of "doing" gender that more closely adhere to an internalized sense of self. In the end, individuals neither passively enact nor completely escape the dictates of the binary system of gender knowledge.
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Here we describe the development of two educational resources for people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The first is a six-week group education programme for those with ulcerative colitis (UC). The second is a resource which can be delivered in one session for people with IBD who have previously attended the 'Expert Patient's Programme' (EPP), the generic chronic disease self-management programme sponsored by the Department of Health.