IN HER INTRODUCTION TO The Transgender Studies Reader, Susan Stryker writes, “Transgender studies enables a critique of the conditions that cause transgender phenomena to stand out in the first place, and that allow gender normativity to disappear into the unanalyzed, ambient background.”1 In a French context, the most discursively visible cultural condition of this type is arguably the nation state. With a centralized health care system that has such sway over the ways ‘healthy’ bodies are produced and reproduced, and over the ways sexual reassignment surgery affects the lives of French people, the nation state recurs in much recent trans discourse as problem or as obstacle to be overcome.2 In journalistic prose, trans narratives, documentaries, and TV programs, transgender subjects are frequently defined through nation-based discourses, institutions, and state-sanctioned forms of power, including especially the arduous process related to changing one’s état civil. Indeed, the very definition of “transgenre” from Wiktionnaire embeds the nation state as problem: “Qualifie une personne dont l’identité de genre ne correspond pas (ou plus) à celle que l’état civil lui assigne à la naissance.”3 It is not the split between sex and gender or between body and gender that defines transgenre, but a lack of correspondence between gender and état civil. A 1980 reportage on the afternoon TV show “Aujourd’hui Madame” opens with a young transwoman coming to see a medical professional who begins their discussion by asking for a national ID card and bemoaning that she has the “état civil d’un garçon.”4 In autobiographical texts such as Axel Léotard’s Mauvais Genre (2009), the nation state essentially functions as antagonist. As Marie Edith Cypris sums it up in her Mémoires d’une transsexuelle, “L’être humain n’est plus sexué ni par la biologie, ni par le culturel et le social, il l’est dorénavant par le législatif.”5
Texts that do not directly engage with the hegemony of the nation state may still be in dialogue with—perhaps through the very gesture of rejection—national recognition of sex change. In Devenir celle que je suis, Delphine Philbert writes that she has become “vraiment Delphine” through the recognition of others in the workplace, but, just a few pages later, this recognition is de facto juxtaposed with “le jugement pour mon changement d’état civil.”6 Becoming “vraiment Delphine” may not be the same as becoming “Delphine officiellement” (153), but the former transition has to trump the latter and to perform the replacement. Sexual binarism, as established by the nation state, [End Page 4] weighs so heavily on trans discourse that it may be difficult to separate out the nation state from other signifiers of binarism and to determine what is enforcing normativity. The mother in Céline Sciamma’s film Tomboy (2011), for example, imposes sexed norms on her eleven-year-old child Laure so that s/he remain a girl who does not pass as a boy, but she buttresses her imposition with what others may say in the context of the educational system.7 The character of the mother may be taken as a sign of the influence of the nation state that oversees the correspondence between Laure’s sex and gender. Or, conversely, the nation state may be seen as signifying the character’s own sexual binarism, which suggests that the very concept of binarism depends on national symbolic power for credibility.
The nation state may be embedded not simply in the content of trans narrative, but also in its form. A coherent or linear narrative may help make the case for paying for medical care or to change official government documents. As Jay Prosser states for an Anglophone context, “the transsexual must work to author a history of transgendered identification in order to receive a reading from the clinician directed toward the realization of transsexual subjectivity.”8 The earliest transsexual FTM narrative in published circulation that I have been able to locate is a 1986 témoignage of Julien, a 25-year-old formerly known as Isabelle. The format of the linear and coherent trans narrative, though, mixes Julien’s t...