Explaining that gender identity is not evidence of any particular sexual orientation is a big part of Trans 101 style popular education, but trans theorists (Kate Bornstein and Jacob Hale come to mind) have also done a lot of work to explore how common assumptions about their connection affects the way individuals experience their own gender and the gender of others. I’ve recently read Gayle Salamon’s Assuming A Body, and (among other things) she shows how the work of phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty can illuminate the connection between sexuality and gender identity. Her argument is interesting in that it takes us beyond heteronormativity and the impact of sexual relations on how one’s gender is read:
What [Merleau-Ponty] eventually concludes is that I, too, am brought into being through desire or love. The beloved other comes to exist in my phenomenological field as such to the extent that she comes to exist for me. But I, too, come to exist for myself in this scenario, and only to the extent that either the other exists for me or I exist for the other, or perhaps both. Sexuality may be ambiguous, but it has an immensely generative power, a power that refuses to be distributed along familiar lines of heteronormative procreation. Indeed, this power to bring about the self is realized insofar as it refuses lines of procreation that would be either heteronormative on the one hand or autogenetic on the other. The former would require that the other and I are in some sense for a third and the latter would have me only for myself. (46)
Instead of focusing on the assumptions a hypothetical third person has to make to view a relationship as conforming to a heterosexual framework, Salamon describes the reaching of one body towards another as identity-forming on both ends. It doesn’t seem to be just the history and identity of the people that catalyze in this moment, but other aspects of the bodily expression of desire – what area(s) of the body it is focalized on, the speed and manner of movement, etc. I think it is difficult not to see a single action like this in terms of active and passive roles although we might imagine it to take place in a broader context of reciprocity and negotiation; although decontextualization might be impossible, it seems essential to Salamon’s (and Merleau-Ponty’s) discussion that the moment of reaching contains a potential for becoming (and perhaps unbecoming) that is proper to itself. This is a useful model for discussing the way gender appears/is felt in sexual encounters, especially in the context of trans people’s often reported experiences of sexual interactions having the potential to be not only pleasurable or unpleasurable, but also unexpectedly affirming or dysphoric.
A great example of this happens in Iris Moore’s “Beyond the Mirror’s Gaze.” On the surface, the short film playfully depicts gender and sexuality as simply, inherently malleable. The film has no dialogue and and shows us only two characters. The ambiguity of their adaptable paper-doll bodies and the simplicity of their non-verbal courtship seems intended to suggest a universality to these characters and their actions, rising above the less flexible signifiers attached to the actions and bodies of those viewing the film. (This is undermined, of course, by that which these bodies share and which does not seem to be flexible: both characters are thin, able-bodied, and white.)
On a really basic level, the message of this short film seems to be a celebration of eroticism expressed as a kind of naive diversity rhetoric: a colour-blindness transferred to what are read as primary and secondary (and tertiary?) sex characteristics. In all honesty, this kind of cyborg utopianism appeals to me a lot, but I feel the need to be skeptical of ever perceiving desire as operating along the lines of “do all types of sex acts with all types of people.” What strikes me as most interesting about this film is where we can see these encounters being shaped by the social world we see very little of but which is implied to exist, and what might remain to push against paper doll sexual normativity.
The film only shows us two bodies which makes it a little hard to establish where normativity is supposed to be located, but it emerges in one doll’s expression of surprise at the other doll’s body. While their paper-doll material seems to invite the kind of free play shown by the first figure in the opening scene, the quick cycle of desire-surprise-hesitation-desire and desire-shame-excuse-desire (displayed by the second and first figure respectively) seems to suggest that we should understand the second figure as normatively cisgender and dyadic (non-intersex) in paper doll world as well as ours; although the dolls are capable of swapping out many physical features, certain combinations of them elicit surprise. The second doll seems to have had an expectation of normative masculinity that is woven into their desire – interrupting it when they perceive the curves of the other’s chest.
It feels ridiculous writing this, but (in contrast to a majority of other animated texts) the jiggle animation in this short is absolutely essential. When each doll emerges out of their clothing, the exuberance of this movement is marked by each of their chests jiggling. After this, though, the film shows us the characters actively jiggling chests and mustaches. These intentional movements appear to direct the attention of both characters – one explores through proprioception and extends an invitation for the other to direct their gaze. These moments precede the actual ‘reaching out’ of desire (which we never really see, as the film cuts twice from pre-touch to silhouettes engaged in penetrative sex) but show us how desire mediating between dual intentions can shape what the body is – making what appears incoherent at one moment appear both desirable and functional at the next. Both trans and cis people may have areas of the body towards which they are never comfortable having attention directed. However, this film shows us how the movement of another body that is intended toward oneself has the potential to open a space in which both bodies can be reshaped by their orientation towards the play of sensation between them.
I am interested in what phenomenological readings of desire and trans bodies can tell us, because I think otherwise it becomes too easy for our bodies to be read as segmented into chunks that individually correspond to cisgender chunks. In one sense, “Beyond the Mirror’s Gaze” invites exactly this move. As unique as each permutation of doll body part combinations may be, it can still be deconstructed completely into what biology/society tells us that body part is for: the penis penetrates and breasts provide visual evidence of the force of being penetrated. This is proven by both scenes of doll sex. Still, it is hard to imagine any textual trans bodies that could not dissolve in this way. Allowing for the possibility of desire mediating perception between individuals appeals to me because it allows us to conceptualize trans bodies not outside of the social but as taking shape through the affect of interpersonal encounters. It’s necessary to account for this happening in non-sexual situations as well, but I think that given the history of trans people being desexualized as a defense to hostile psychoanalytical accounts of the sexual motivations of transition (for trans women, mostly), it is time to reexamine the transformative potential of desire within a framework that acknowledges both the social construction of gender and the felt gender of trans subjects.