Transgender media studies are an avenue of study that focuses on the visibility, representation, and culture surrounding the transgender community. Central to the issues and theory surrounding the construction of the transgender identity are the ideas of taboo and the ideas of concealing one’s identity as opposed to visibility of one’s identity. The theory of transgender visibility also has direct connection to surveillance in the public sphere, both externally and internally in relation to the social construction of taboo and sexual repression.
These topics of repression and taboo can be attributed in a theoretical sense on the ideas and work of Michel Foucault, who discussed the repression and self-surveillance instituted by a dominant social elite. These discussions are linked to ideas surrounding gender identity, sexual orientation, and any other taboo that society has outlined as outside the norm of the white, heterosexual personification of the ideal. These principles of power and self-surveillance are further investigated in a modern praxis in Toby Beauchamp’s article, “Artful Concealment and Strategic Visibility,” which focuses on post 9/11 surveillance and the impact this had on specifically transgender communities (Beauchamp, 2013).
He discusses the dangers of ambiguity and how to skirt the line between concealing one’s status as a member of the trans community and cautious exposure in spaces where appropriate (Beauchamp, 2013). This is where power and self-surveillance come into play as Beauchamp (2013) states, “Transgender bodies that conform to a dominant standard of dress and behavior may be legible to the state not as transgender, but as gendered and safe” (pg. 49).
These findings from Beauchamp about transgender visibility and its relation to both public and private surveillance directly correlate to the theories of Foucault and his ideas surrounding the regression hypothesis and self-surveillance. Foucault states that in a cultural system in which there is a distinct separation between taboo and what is culturally and socially acceptable, that we enter into a state of self-surveillance in which we monitor our own behaviors to fit these norms (Foucault, 1978).
This also relates to his constructions of power. Power is defined by Foucault, in a broad sense, as relating to the control of sovereignty and the factors in which one has the ability to change or manipulate the sovereignty of another (Foucault, 1976). Sovereignty is one’s ability to choose or rule over one’s self. To have control over your own sovereignty means practicality you are the master of your choices and have the ability to think, act, and perceive of your own volition (Foucault, 1976). Taboo is anything that does not fit within the hegemonic structures put in place by the dominant social elite, creating effectively a system in which the dominant identity and construction of oneself is correct, and anything outside of that is deemed taboo (Foucault, 1978).
All this being said, Beauchamp offers both critiques and admiration for the idea of visibility and concealment within the transgender communities. Concealment being needing to hide one’s transgender identity in order to keep oneself safe and visibility being cautious outing of oneself even with fear of rejection or harm. Two prime examples of how these theories function in practice are that of Caitlyn Jenner, a prominent transgender figure, and airport facial recognition software and the issue of its misgendering of individuals.
The example of Caitlyn Jenner and her transition gained both positive and negative media attention with some heralding her as a hero of the trans community while others demonized her, calling her Bruce in a wig or other such transphobic comments. However, this infamy is not what makes her a prime example of Beauchamp’s critiques of trans visibility perceptions, but rather her status and focus in trans advocacy groups that drive this connection. Beauchamp claims that many trans activist groups serve to reinforce hegemonic structures, focusing their advocacy attention to those in the trans community that are affluent, and more often than not white (Beauchamp, 2013). Her exposure as a hero of the transgender community discounts those trans people of color or immigrants who struggle to find safe spaces for the type of visibility and fame that arose from Caitlyn’s public visibility as a trans woman.
Another example that focuses on another aspect of both Beauchamp’s and Foucault’s work in relation to surveillance of bodies and sex is that of airport security, particularly facial recognition software. While these programs were designed to increase security, especially post 9/11, what they have done unintentionally based on the biases of those that programed them, has allowed for widespread misgendering creating dangerous spaces where concealment is required. If a transgender individual is in a place of visibility, but is identified by the machine as the incorrect gender, there is a strong possibility this innocent person will be flagged as a security risk. This is based on the increase of legal surveillance such as the Patriot Act. Beauchamp makes it clear that there is a constructed act of power that takes away the sovereignty of those that do not fall into the preconceived ideas of gender or sexual orientation (Beauchamp, 2013). The usage of mechanical surveillance as a way to regulate the visibility of trans communities is something that was cemented by 9/11 but was grounded in Foucault’s ideas about sovereignty and power from far before the terror attacks.
Transgender visibility is a lovely sentiment especially in a society that creates a power dynamic wherein sovereign individuals must allow their identity to suffer death as it does not fit into the social norm. The idea of visibility stems from a constructed hope that taboo identities have the agency to change societal perceptions, however based on Foucault’s idea of sovereignty and repression, without true power over one’s choice and body, taboo will always remain monitored as taboo (Foucault, 1978). In the end, Foucault makes it clear that in order to create a society in which what is taboo is not dictated by those that wish to enforce concealment and visibility of identity on their own terms, it is required to reevaluate the distribution of power to give agency to those without it.
Beauchamp, T. (2013). Artful Concealment and Strategic Viability: Transgender Bodies and U.S. State Surveillance After 9/11. In S. Stryker & A. Z. Aizura (Eds.), Transgender Studies Reader 2 (pp. 45-55). New York and London: Routledge, 2013.
Foucault, M. (1976) “Lecture Eleven” in Society Must be Defended (pp. 239-263). New York, NY: Picador, 2003.
Foucault, M. (1978) “We Other Victorians” in The History of Sexuality (pp. 1-15). New York, NY: Random House Inc.
Image Attribution: The images used in this post are in the public domain (creative commons)
Written by: Colin Levi, 2019