restricted access Transgressive Translations: Parrhesia and the Politics of Being Understood
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Transgressive Translations:
Parrhesia and the Politics of Being Understood

Author And Activist Julia Serano’s spoken word poem “Performance Piece” is a smart and passionate polemic against people who say that “all gender is performance” (Serano 2010, 85). In response to those who treat gender as an endlessly mutable fiction, performance, or facade Serano says:

Sure, I can perform gender: I can curtsy, or throw like a girl, or bat my eyelashes. But performance doesn’t explain why certain behaviors and ways of being come to me more naturally than others. It offers no insight into the countless restless nights I spent as a pre-teen wrestling with the inexplicable feeling that I should be female. It doesn’t capture the very real physical and emotional changes that I experienced when I hormonally transitioned from testosterone to estrogen. (Serano 2010, 85–86)

My first reaction to this understanding of performativity was to get defensive, immediately thinking of all the ways in which it reflects a poor reading of Judith Butler and is an incorrect use of the concept. Yet, to make that argument would mean arriving late to the party. Many theorists, notably Jay Prosser and Viviane Namaste, have made similar arguments about performativity to which Butler and many others have responded. I am not interested in joining this debate by defending or critiquing performativity; instead, I want to take seriously Serano’s criticism of the way performativity functions as a “mantra” for [End Page 84] “queerer-than-thou hipsters” (Serano 2010, 87). The fact is, concepts that help people make sense of their experience are often taken up piecemeal. They gain traction, get printed on posters, discussed in safe-spaces, taught in intro classes, and yelled at parents. They take on a life of their own and are queered again and again. It may not be anyone’s fault that performativity has come to signify a kind of insincerity, detachment from the body, linguistic constructionism, or a play of surfaces, but for many people this is exactly what it means. What follows is inspired by the questions at the heart of Serano’s poem: “Can’t we find new ways of speaking? Shouldn’t we be championing new slogans that empower all of us, whether trans or non-trans, queer or straight, female and/or male and/ or none of the above?” (Serano 2010, 87). I depart slightly from Serano insofar as I am not interested in replacing performativity as a concept. Instead, I am interested in locating other concepts that could be useful in understanding and communicating our multiple experiences of gender.

Serano’s concern is not only the depth and conviction with which she experiences gender, but also the communicability of this conviction. We are social beings. We seek out the company of other people, animals, and objects. In order to flourish we need to feel understood by our surroundings. We are creatures that need to be connected, and connection requires translating our subjective experiences into a communicable, socially understandable register. How does this translation occur? How do we make ourselves understandable? What external forces regulate or influence this translation? And, crucially, how can we construct philosophical concepts that do justice to our need to feel that our interior selves are understood? What concept could we cast out into the world that might answer Serano’s call for new ways of speaking? What follows is an attempt to think through this question by looking at the relationship between the medicalization of trans people, Michel Foucault’s writings on parrhesia, and coming out.

The first half of this essay examines the ways in which the medical apparatus that manages transitioning attempts to control transsexual coming-out narratives, an example of what Foucault calls biopower. I argue that the medicalization of transitioning has created a legible transsexual identity structured on the distance between our interiority and the world external to the self. The trans person’s claims about their interior sense of self are the only evidence needed to access medical technologies such as hormone therapy or surgery. But oftentimes such claims are only accepted as valid if they conform to certain scripts—scripts that are...